American Airlines and Envoy Air Settle EEOC Disability Suit about Return to Work Policy
American Airlines' and Enoy Air's return to work policy has resulted in a $9.8 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to the agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee, the airline's policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it meant that employees were not allowed to return to work until they had no disability-related restrictions on their job duties. In short, the EEOC challenged the airline's policy of requiring workers to be at “100 percent” in order to return to work.
Allegations of Disability Discrimination
Employees of American Airlines and its largest regional affiliate, Envoy Air filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC alleging violations of the ADA. The employees filing complaints had disabilities such as back and knee injuries, cancer, lupus and asthma. The complaints suggested the employer refused to provide accommodations such as intermittent leave or a stool behind the ticket counter for a worker with a standing restriction, according to the EEOC. The workers ultimately alleged that the airlines had a “100 percent” return to work policy that required employees to be able to work without any restrictions.
After investigating, the EEOC filed suit asserting that since at least Jan. 1, 2009, American Airlines engaged in a practice of violating the statute by refusing to accommodate employees with disabilities, terminating employees with disabilities and failing to rehire employees. The policy required that employees who are no longer able to do their job without reasonable accommodation find other jobs, apply for other jobs or compete for other American Airlines jobs. The policy did not require consideration of job reassignment as a reasonable accommodation.
According to the EEOC's complaint, American 1) did not provide intermittent leave as an accommodation, 2) refused to provide a stool behind the ticket counter to accommodate an employee with a standing restriction, 3) terminated several of the charging parties or placed them on unpaid leave, and 4) told other disabled employees they could not return to work until they had no restrictions related to their injuries and/or disabilities.
American Enters a Consent Decree
American Airlines denied all of the allegations and maintained that they provide equal employment opportunities for all workers. Even with this stance, American entered a consent decree to settle the charges. The consent decree contains the following provisions:
- The EEOC will hold an unsecured claim in American Airlines' Fourth Amended Joint Chapter 11 Plan in the amount of $9.8 million. The ultimate dollar value of the settlement will depend upon the trading price of the airline's stock, the parties acknowledged, with the decree fully enforceable no matter the trading price;
- American took responsibility for administration costs up to $150,000;
- American and Envoy will conduct additional ADA training for all employees, with extra time allotted for human resources workers and ADA coordinators, and a newly designated position will have responsibility for overseeing American's compliance with the statute and the consent decree;
- American and Envoy will refrain from taking part in any employment practices that discriminate or retaliate on the basis of disability and will engage in the interactive process with employees who request a reasonable accommodation;
- The airlines will end the challenged return to work policy accommodation and remove references to the litigation from the charging parties' personnel files; and
- American will provide equitable relief to the complainants.
EEOC Deputy General Counsel James L. Lee said, “We are pleased the parties were able to resolve this important case without resorting to prolonged and expensive litigation, and we are proud of the Commission's long record of protecting people with disabilities from workplace discrimination.”
Click here to read the entire consent decree filed on November 3, 2017 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. American Airlines, Inc.
California Employment Lawyers
Given the outcome of this investigation, employers should take heed of the EEOC's position regarding 100% return to work policies. Subsequently, employers should be extremely cautious about requiring employees to return to work without restrictions when returning from medical leaves of absence. Should you have questions about the ADA, or employees having the ability to return to work with or without restrictions, don't hesitate to contact the experienced California employment lawyers at Kingsley & Kingsley. To discuss these laws, or a potential claim on your behalf, feel free to call us toll-free at (888) 500-8469 or contact Kingsley & Kingsley via email.
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