Disability nonprofit will pay over $1M for allegedly failing to accommodate deaf workers

Dive Brief:

  • Didlake, a nonprofit government contractor that employs people with disabilities, will pay $1,017,500 to resolve a lawsuit alleging it failed to accommodate workers who are deaf and hard of hearing and fired employees who asked for medical leave but didn’t qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced July 1.
  • Per the complaint in EEOC v. Didlake, Inc., the D.C.-based company allegedly failed to engage in a good-faith interactive process with hearing-impaired janitorial and maintenance workers and failed to provide them with communication accommodations, including American Sign Language interpreters so they could understand and participate in training sessions, mandatory safety meetings and one-on-one meetings with management.
  • Didlake also allegedly failed to engage in the interactive process and terminated qualified individuals with a disability who needed medical leave but weren’t FMLA eligible, despite the availability of unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, the lawsuit said. These actions allegedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the complaint.

Dive Insight:

The ADA doesn’t expressly require employers to engage in an interactive process, but the process is favored for finding a reasonable accommodation for qualified individuals with a disability, which the ADA does require, absent undue hardship.

Employers can take a cue from a July 2023 decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 4th Circuit held that UPS properly assessed and rejected the accommodation requests of a driver with lower back pain who asked for a smaller truck or “inside” work that didn’t involve driving.

UPS sought information from the driver’s medical provider and met with him to discuss his requests, according to the record. Following the meeting, UPS determined it had no openings for inside work and the other request would violate his collective bargaining agreement. UPS placed him on unpaid leave until he could return to work, and the 4th Circuit found its actions complied with the ADA.

The EEOC’s recently updated guidance on the ADA and hearing disabilities addresses some of the accommodation issues raised in the Didlake case.

For example, the guidance explains that a project manager who can read lips to communicate individually with co-workers should be given a certified sign language interpreter, absent undue hardship, for large-group conferences and meetings because it’s not possible for the manager to use lip-reading when people not in his line of sight are speaking.

The EEOC said Didlake, an Ability One contractor, failed to meet its ADA obligations when it had a manager who was not a professional or certified interpreter try to interpret for hearing-impaired employees. Written handouts it gave employees that were difficult to read and didn’t convey everything at meetings also failed to reasonably accommodate them, the agency alleged.

These alternatives and others, such as having a co-worker take notes, aren’t effective because they don’t allow the hearing-impaired employee to ask questions and participate in discussions as other employees do, the guidance points out.

Under a court-approved consent decree, Didlake must implement a supplemental reasonable accommodation policy requiring it to engage in an interactive process with applicants and employees when it receives notice of their need for an accommodation.

The monetary payments include $62,500 to an employee whom Didlake allegedly fired because she was not FMLA eligible when she required leave at the end of her high-risk pregnancy to undergo and recover from an emergency cesarean section, according to the consent decree.

The payments also include $70,000 to the estate of an employee who was allegedly fired because she needed to be hospitalized for several days and wasn’t eligible for FMLA leave. Didlake also allegedly refused to rehire her with the accommodations she requested due to a recurrence of her cervical cancer, the EEOC said.