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The EEOC has settled a disability discrimination lawsuit against Gregory Packaging, the manufacturer and distributor of Suncup juice products found in schools and medical institutions throughout the country.
Gregory Packaging has agreed to pay $125,000 to settle charges that it illegally terminated a machine operator at its Newnan, Georgia, packaging plant after learning that he was HIV-positive.
The settlement comes as a reminder that the Americans with Disabilities Act covers a wide range of individuals and conditions, and is not just limited to the most traditional or visible disabilities.
Using the ADA to Fight HIV Discrimination
Under the ADA, an individual has a "disability" if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities. This definition includes people with HIV and AIDS, whether they have symptoms associated with the virus or not. In fact, even individuals who are wrongly perceived to have a disability are covered by the ADA.
The Suncup settlement is one of several HIV discrimination actions the EEOC has successfully settled in the past few years. Several of these cases have involved the denial of medical services, from practitioners' refusal to provide dental care due to HIV to the illegal, forced withdrawal of an HIV-positive student from Gwinnett College's medical assistance program.
Under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable modifications or adjustments to a job, an application process, or a work environment in order to enable qualified applicants or employees with disabilities to participate. For workers with HIV or AIDS, these accommodations are often health-related, such as allowing leave for doctor's visits, or telecommuting while adjusting to medication.
Co-workers' Fears Are Not Relevant Factors
Reasonable accommodations can only be avoided if the employer can show that undue hardship would result. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division has stated that the attitudes of customers or coworkers toward an individual's disability, such as his or her HIV status, are not relevant factors. Potential loss of co-workers or customers due to their fears of exposure does not constitute an undue hardship.
Fears about exposure to HIV can often be disproportionate to the actual risk. For example, the CDC reports that, since 1999, there have been no confirmed cases of occupational HIV transmission to health care workers, where risk of exposure tends to be greater.
As the EEOC and Department of Justice continue to focus on HIV discrimination, settlements such as Suncup's may become more common.