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Safeway Loses Disability Lawsuit, Rehires Clerk and Pays $27K

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 04, 2016 3:55 PM

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a settlement with Safeway, Inc. that will require the nation-wide grocery chain to rehire a food clerk and pay $27,000 in damages after she was fired following a work-related injury. The settlement sheds light on the kind of accommodations employers are required to make for injured employees and how long those accommodations are necessary.

Here's a look at the EEOC's settlement and the lessons for small business owners.

Time's Up

According to the EEOC, Patricia Bonds was working as a food clerk at a Safeway in Westminster, Maryland when she sustained a work-related injury that substantially limited her ability to lift heavy objects. Safeway initially reassigned Bonds to the customer service desk, but then claimed she had exhausted her time limits for modified duty and abruptly placed her on indefinite unpaid leave.

The EEOC then filed a suit on behalf of Bonds, alleging that Safeway violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by firing Bonds because of her disability. The ADA "requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation, including reassignment to a vacant position, unless it would cause a significant expense or difficulty to the employer," and does not include a time limit after which reasonable accommodations are no longer necessary. As long as an employee has a qualifying disability, the employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations.

Serious Settlement

The EEOC claims it tried unsuccessfully to reach a pre-trial settlement with Safeway, but was only able to settle after filing a lawsuit in federal court. Along with the $27,000 monetary award,

... the three-year consent decree resolving the suit requires Safeway to rehire Bonds with her continued seniority status and to provide her with a hand scanner or other reasonable accommodation to allow her to perform the food clerk job duties. Safeway is enjoined from violating the ADA, including refusing to provide reasonable accommodations. Safeway will provide annual ADA training to all managers and supervisors at its Westminster store and to all members of its eastern division accommodations committee. The grocery store will also report to EEOC on how it handles any complaints of disability discrimination and post a notice regarding the settlement.

The lesson for small business is the same as ever: don't discriminate against injured or disabled employees, and make sure you know your obligations under the ADA before reassigning or firing injured employees. An experienced employment lawyer can help.

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