The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency tasked with administering and enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. In recent weeks the agency has filed several workplace discrimination lawsuits against highly recognized national employers. Labor and employment attorneys are theorizing that the actions are both a result of employees becoming more aware of their rights under the law, and that the Biden administration is taking a more aggressive position regarding the need to accommodate workers with disabilities.

In the state of New Jersey, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) specifically protects workers from employment discrimination based on several identified categories, including race, gender, age, and physical disability, and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers. Nationally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does the same and is enforced by the EEOC. In the last few weeks the agency has filed cases against Hobby Lobby, Walmart, and the Salvation Army following failure to reach a pre-litigation settlement with each.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the arts and crafts retailer originally hired an employee for a cashier’s position at one of its Kansas stores. When the employee advised her manager that she would need to bring her fully trained service dog to work with her to assist with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, the company’s human resources representative rejected her request. The company’s justification for their denial was that coworkers or customers might be allergic to the animal or might trip over it, or that the dog might cause damage.  This position was offset by the fact that the store not only permits service animals to accompany customers, but that customers are also permitted to bring non-service animals into the store.  When the employee offered to bring the animal in to show that it was well trained and would not be a problem, the store managers would not allow it, and ended up firing the employee rather than accommodating her request. This action is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Speaking of the failure to accommodate the employee, David Davis, acting director of the EEOC’s St Louis District Office, said, “Service animals assist people with many types of disabilities – from vision and mobility impairments to seizure disorders and mental health conditions – to live and work independently. Employers must not reject service animals, or any other reasonable accommodation, based on stereotypes or assumptions regarding the safety or effectiveness of the accommodation.”

Walmart is also being accused of violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. In the claim filed against them, a disabled part-time sales associate hired at one of its South Carolina stores was originally permitted to use one of the store’s electric carts to perform his job duties, which included stocking shelves. Several months after he had completed his probationary period and had been successfully fulfilling all his responsibilities, the store hired a new manager, who told the employee that carts were reserved for customers and that he could no longer use the cart. The employee was sent home without pay and told that he would have to purchase his own cart or transfer to another position within the store. Unable to pay for a cart and physically unable to assume the duties of the other post, he was placed on indefinite unpaid leave. Speaking of Walmart’s actions, “Melinda C. Dugas, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District said, “Walmart revoked a reasonable workplace accommodation that enabled Mr. Quiñones to perform the essential functions of his job despite his disability, and then failed to provide him with a reasonable alternative. Such conduct violates federal law.”

Similarly, an employee at a Salvation Army thrift store in Ann Arobor, Michigan who had successfully been fulfilling his job responsibilities was terminated when a new store manager was hired. The employee advised the store manager of mental and physical disabilities that caused involuntary movements at the time that he was hired, and the store provided him with a job coach during a 90-day probationary period, which he successfully completed. A month and a half later, a new store manager was hired. The new manager criticized him for his involuntary movements. Rather than making accommodations or allowing additional job coaching, the new manager disciplined him for minor mistakes and terminated him. According to Miles Uhlar of the EEOC’s Detroit Field Office, “This employee was fully capable of continuing to work as a cashier, as he had done successfully for months before a new manager was assigned to the store. Mistreating or terminating an employee with a disability because he or she looks differently runs afoul of the ADA.”

Just as the EEOC stands up to employers who engage in discriminatory behavior, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects those who face workplace discrimination within the state. For information on how it can protect you, contact our employment discrimination law firm today.