Accommodation that would’ve required system upgrade was reasonable, EEOC says

PepsiCo violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 when it failed to provide reasonable accommodation to and later fired a call center worker who is blind, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged in a lawsuit Friday.

Per the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, the employee notified PepsiCo of his disability prior to his start date and requested an accommodation that would allow him to perform essential job functions. He referred PepsiCo to a vocational counselor who offered to assist the company by conducting a technology assessment and purchasing needed equipment.

EEOC alleged PepsiCo rejected the counselor’s offer and instead tested two screen reading software products, but the company found they were incompatible with its systems.

In a follow-up meeting, PepsiCo representatives allegedly said that rebuilding the company’s systems to improve compatibility would take at least one year and could cost up to $1 million. Additionally, the company already planned to replace its Customer Equipment Tracking System, or CETS, with a new software product by 2025. The representatives said this replacement would not be compatible with screen reading technology, EEOC claimed.

At the same time, PepsiCo allegedly told the plaintiff it had looked for other jobs for him but “could not find anything that did not require use of the CETS system or was otherwise suitable” for him. It later fired him.

PepsiCo did not immediately respond to an HR Dive request for comment.

EEOC alleged PepsiCo had knowledge of the employee’s disability and his need for reasonable accommodation. It also claimed that use of a screen reader was reasonable and would have allowed the plaintiff to perform the job’s essential functions.

In a press release, Melinda C. Dugas, regional attorney for EEOC’s Charlotte, North Carolina, office, said that applicants and new employees are particularly vulnerable to disability discrimination.

“At that stage, the employee often does not yet have enough information about the employer’s operations to recognize and assess potential reasonable accommodations,” Dugas said. “It is incumbent upon the employer to share information and to work with an employee or the employee’s advocate to identify possible accommodations.”

The agency asked the district court for injunctive relief as well as back pay with prejudgment interest, punitive damages, compensation for the plaintiff’s past and future losses and other affirmative relief.

Employers may encounter a number of pitfalls when handling accommodation requests, some of which may be the result of factors such as inadequate training or general resistance to the process altogether.

Last week, for example, EEOC filed a separate complaint against a Maryland-based healthcare provider in which it alleged the employer fired an employee with a vision impairment after she requested an accommodation on her first day of work. The commission cautioned employers that the ADA does not require job candidates to disclose their disabilities during a job interview.

On the subject of visual disabilities specifically, EEOC published updated guidance in 2023 on steps employers can take to ensure new technologies, including artificial intelligence tools, are accessible to those who have visual impairments. Employers that use AI in hiring assessments could include alternative assessment formats for such candidates, the agency said.