If you fired an employee with a disability you better be very careful you've crossed your T's. Otherwise you could be paying a steep fine.

That's what Whole Foods Markets just found out.  The food retailer, which is owned by online retailer Amazon.com, will be paying $65,000 - and providing "other relief" to an employee suffering from kidney disease that was wrongfully fired.

The story dates back to 2009. That was when Diane Butler, a cashier at a Whole Foods' Raleigh, North Carolina store was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disease that can lead to kidney failure. During that year, Butler underwent a kidney transplant, but eventually returned to work. Fast forward to December, 2015. Butler, who was still undergoing treatment for the condition, missed two days of work because she had been hospitalized and needed to visit her doctor. Although Butler said she informed Whole Foods of her pending absence, the company still fired her.

That did not go over well. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got involved, accusing the company of violating the American with Disabilities Act and charged the company with discrimination.

"An employer who is on notice that an employee's absence is related to her disability must comply with the ADA's mandate to reasonably accommodate her by making exceptions to its absenteeism policy if doing so doesn't cause an undue hardship," Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte District said in a press release. "Ignoring federal anti-discrimination law only makes things worse for a company as well as employees."

In the end, Whole Foods and the EEOC settled. The company not only has to cough up $65,000, but also develop a disability accommodation policy, post a notice concerning employee rights and provide annual training on the requirements of the ADA specifically where it requires that employees with a disability are allowed to receive "reasonable accommodation" for their condition.

"Employees don't have to invoke the ADA by name, and requests need not be in writing," writes Lisa Burden of HR Dive, a human resources industry publisher. "Instead, employees can use "plain English" to explain that they're having difficulty meeting some work requirement because of a physical or mental impairment -- which is why manager training is so important. If an employee mentions needing time off for a back problem, that can trigger the employer's accommodation responsibilities."

Unfortunately, not enough employers - large and small - fully understand the requirements of federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and, as a result, are exposed to lawsuits such as Butler's. Consulting a labor attorney and providing training is the best way to address this issue.  The cost of doing so seems nominal when compared to the potential costs of not.

Published on: Nov 29, 2018