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Can Your Employer Fire You When You Become Disabled?


 Auto Zone has a history of running afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency has just filed its fourth lawsuit against Auto Zone for failing to follow Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. In its suit, the EEOC alleges that Auto Zone fired multiple employees who missed work because of disability. The bad news is that employers aren’t always required to protect the jobs of disabled workers.

Wage Protection vs. Job Protection

you-are-fired-stamp-employer-disabledIn 2011, the Miami branch of EEOC filed a lawsuit against AT&T in Puerto Rico’s U.S. District Court. A long-time AT&T employee named Miguel Melendez, who had worked as a switch technician, lost eyesight in both of his eyes because of diabetic retinopathy. Melendez asked AT&T to accommodate his disability by letting him use special software. AT&T terminated his employment instead, and EEOC has sued for back pay and other punitive damages.

Disability insurance in Miami and in other locations (learn more by clicking here) could have protected at least some of Melendez’s wages. However, AT&T wasn’t necessarily obligated to keep employing Melendez. Most American companies employ people on an “at will” basis, meaning that they can hire and fire for nearly any reason. In many cases, employers can fire people even though they’re receiving disability benefits.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and ADA Protections

FMLA requires organizations that employ 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave when a worker or worker’s family member has significant medical issues. Workers can collect short-term and long-term disability while out on FMLA leave, and employers must provide workers with the same or a similar position when they return to work. However, if a disability or family health problem lasts more than 12 weeks, employees can lose their jobs even with disability insurance and FMLA.

ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees that are disabled. In Melendez’s case, the question before the judge is whether Melendez’s request for assistive software would have caused AT&T “undue hardship.” The definition of undue hardship varies based on the size of the employer, the financial resources of the employer, the cost of the accommodation and the potential effect of the accommodation. Melendez’s case, EEOC v. AT&T, argues that Melendez’s accommodation requests were reasonable.

Auto Zone and ADA

In 2009, Auto Zone reportedly created a new employment policy designed to curb absenteeism. Employees received points for absences and made no allowances for disability-related absences. After accumulating 12 or more points, employees lost their jobs. For example, an employee with Type 2 diabetes who worked in Ottawa, Ill., was fired after leaving work early multiple times because of insulin reactions.

Auto Zone also reportedly fired at least one employee who reached out to the EEOC for help.

The EEOC filed this lawsuit under Title I of ADA, which prohibits companies from discriminating against disabled people in their employment policies, and under Title V, which prohibits companies from retaliatory firing of people who report discrimination. It’s the fourth ADA-related lawsuit that EEOC has filed against Auto Zone.

In the first suit, Auto Zone had to pay $140,000 in damages and provide ADA training in all stores because it failed both to promote a blind employee and to let him use a guide dog. A second lawsuit secured a $424,000 judgment against Auto Zone for failing to accommodate an employee’s disability, causing him to become reinjured from mopping the floor. Third, Auto Zone refused to accommodate an employee’s lifting restrictions, choosing to fire her instead. The third suit has been referred to trial, but the court hasn’t issued a ruling.

How Do Companies Like Auto Zone Get Away With It?

The amount of damages that Auto Zone had to pay for violating ADA is miniscule compared to the $8.1 billion that the company makes each year. To put it in perspective, the damages paid by Auto Zone in its first two cases, a total of $564,000, amounts to just 0.007 percent of the company’s annual revenue. Unfortunately, U.S. job protection laws are not balanced toward the employee. As long as the law continues to favor employers, disabled people could find their jobs on the line.