Would You Fire Someone Over a $1.39-Bag of Chips?
Josefina Hernandez, a Walgreens employee of 18 years who has diabetes, felt her blood sugar levels drop on the job one day in September, 2008. The cashier usually kept candy in her pocket to ward off hypoglycemia, but this time she didn't have any. So she grabbed a bag of chips, which cost $1.39.
She paid for them, she says, as soon as she could leave the register. But the company, which knew about her medical condition, fired her, anyway.
Now the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission has filed a federal court suit accusing the Deerfield, Illinois-based drugstore chain of discriminating against a disabled. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accomodations for employees with disabilites, something the EEOC says Walgreens failed to do. The suit, EEOC v. Walgreen Co., was filed after attempts to reach a voluntary settlement failed. It seeks monetary damages, including back pay, compensation for emotional distress, and punitive damages.
“Ms. Hernandez took action to raise her blood sugar in what could have turned into an emergency situation," said William R. Tamayo, an EEOC San Francisco regional attorney. "Accommodating disability does not have to be expensive, but it may require an employer to be flexible and open-minded. One wonders whether a long-term, experienced employee is worth less than a bag of chips to Walgreens."
"I knew I needed to do something quickly, so I reached for a bag of chips and paid for them as soon as I could," she said in a statement released by the agency. "I am very upset to lose my job over this."
About 8 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. (Among Mexican-Americans like Hernandez, 13.3 percent of adults are afflicted.)
Said Michael Baldonado, the EEOC's San Francisco district director: "Under the newly amended disability law, savvy employers should focus on training their staff to understand how and when to accommodate employees with disabilities." (Here's a list of resources.)
Walgreens declined to comment.
Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.