U.S. Employers Paying Price for Disability-Related Leave Limits

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By Patrick Dorrian

Some private-sector companies in the U.S. still aren’t bringing their employee-leave policies up-to-date quickly enough to avoid liability for alleged discrimination against disabled workers.

Mueller Industries Inc. is the latest U.S. employer to agree to a seven-figure settlement to resolve charges by the federal government that a group of workers needing extended leave for a temporary or permanent medical condition were held to a strict limit on how much time-off they could take or requiring them to be fully healed before returning to work. Other companies that have reached similar agreements include Lowe’s, UPS, and American Airlines.

Mueller will pay $1 million to end a lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging it failed to provide leave as a reasonable accommodation to a class of disabled employees. The EEOC, which enforces federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, also accused the international copper, brass, aluminum, and plastic products manufacturer of discharging disabled workers for using leave as a reasonable accommodation or exceeding the limits of the company’s “maximum leave” policy.

The elimination of employer blanket maximum or fixed leave limits for workers, as well as 100 percent-healed policies, is one of the agency’s six national enforcement priorities. It has long warned employers about the risks such policies create of discrimination against disabled workers, and in May 2016 it issued a guidance document on Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That guidance grew out of a June 2011 public meeting on leave as an accommodation under the ADA and an ensuing look by the agency at the issue. That was spearheaded by EEOC Chair Victoria Lipnic—at the time an EEOC commissioner—and Commissioner Chai Feldblum in the wake of the 2008 ADA Amendments Act.

Agency Applauds Cooperation

The EEOC’s settlement with Mueller was approved July 13 by Judge George H. Wu of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. It applies to Mueller operations nationwide, including 23 listed subsidiaries.

The 2.5-year consent decree—a settlement that is immediately enforceable by the court—also obligates Mueller to appoint a company employee approved by the EEOC to coordinate compliance with the decree and the ADA. That includes reviewing and revising the company’s anti-discrimination and leave policies and its procedure for employees to report suspected violations of the policies.

The ADA coordinator will also work with Mueller human resources managers when an employee requests an extended medical leave of absence that may trigger ADA coverage, the decree states.

“We applaud the efforts by Mueller Industries in reaching a resolution with the EEOC that provides both meaningful monetary relief and important companywide equitable relief for its employees with disabilities,” Anna Park, the agency’s regional attorney in Los Angeles said in a July 17 statement announcing the settlement.

Mueller didn’t immediately respond July 17 to Bloomberg Law’s requests for comment.

Lowe’s, Other Settlements

Lowe’s Cos. agreed to pay $8.6 million in May 2016 to resolve similar allegations against it. The EEOC’s settlements with American and Envoy Airlines and United Parcel Services Inc. were for $9.8 million and $1.7 million, respectively.

Just last month Las Vegas-based slot machine tavern chain Dotty’s agreed to pay $3.5 million and revise its workplace policies and procedures to resolve EEOC allegations that it illegally forced disabled workers to show they were 100 percent healed before returning to work from leave.

Grocery chain Associated Fresh Market last week paid $832,000 to end an EEOC investigation into similar leave-bias charges against it.

The EEOC over the years has also sued numerous other employers challenging their leave policies and practices under the ADA.

The case is EEOC v. Mueller Indus., Inc., C.D. Cal., No. 2:18-cv-05729, consent decree 7/13/18.

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