Wal-Mart Worker Says Accommodation Request Got Chilly Reception

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By Patrick Dorrian

A Wal-Mart store in Baltimore unlawfully denied an asthmatic employee’s request to work in a warmer environment, exacerbating her condition, a lawsuit filed in federal court charges ( Ghebrewoldi v. Wal-Mart Stores E., LP , D. Md., No. 1:16-cv-04096, complaint filed 12/27/16 ).

Frewoini Ghebrewoldi claims the company responded to her request for reassignment, which was supported by a doctor’s note, by telling her she could wear a respirator and warmer clothing while she worked in the bakery department’s freezer and other extremely cold surroundings. Wal-Mart, however, never provided her with a respirator or warmer gear despite promising to do so, and it told her she wasn’t eligible to transfer to another job for six months regardless of her condition, Ghebrewoldi alleges.

Wal-Mart’s failure to accommodate her, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, caused her asthma to become so severe that she became medically unable to work, the lawsuit, filed Dec. 27 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, contends.

Some courts have found employers liable or potentially liable for failing to accommodate workers’ disability-related temperature sensitivities. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2008 upheld a $68,309 jury verdict in favor of an Ohio employee who was denied a climate-controlled office to accommodate her breathing disability. A federal district court in New York in 2013 also ruled that a Long Island Rail Road crew dispatcher with a heart condition could pursue his claim that he was unlawfully denied transfer out of a booth with an inoperable air conditioning unit.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 similarly recovered $52,000 on its claim that a North Carolina poultry processor denied an anemic employee’s request for reassignment from the cold debone department to a vacant position in a warmer work environment elsewhere in the company.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on the specifics of the Maryland case. “We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” the company said through a spokesman. “We have not yet been served, but once we are, we will review the pleadings and respond appropriately with the court.”

Failure to Accommodate Led to Medical Leave

Ghebrewoldi began her career with Wal-Mart in 2013 as a stocker but was transferred to the bakery department after suffering a work-related injury in October 2015, according to her complaint. Her duties as a cake decorator required her to spend significant time in the department’s “extreme cold” and damp environment, including working inside of a freezer, she asserts.

Her new work conditions almost immediately aggravated her lifelong asthma, Ghebrewoldi alleges. She reported the problem to the company, but it failed to take any action, she says.

Ghebrewoldi later followed her doctor’s advice and formally requested to be transferred to “another department with warmer temperatures,” and she supported her request with medical documentation of her condition. Instead of honoring or discussing her request, Wal-Mart suggested as an alternative that it would provide her with a warmer coat, hat and gloves as well as a respirator, but it failed to do so, according to Ghebrewoldi’s complaint.

Ghebrewoldi’s asthma ultimately got so bad that her doctor advised her to take medical leave, and she has since been unable to return to work for the retailer, she says.

Mallon & McCool LLC represents Ghebrewoldi. No attorney had filed an appearance yet for Wal-Mart.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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