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Verizon will pay $20 million to settle EEOC nationwide disability bias suit over inflexible attendance policy

A nationwide class disability lawsuit against telecommunications giant Verizon Communications has been settled for $20 million and significant equitable relief, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was no doubt happy to announce today – it’s the largest single disability bias settlement in the agency’s history. The EEOC filed suit against 24 named subsidiaries of Verizon Communications, alleging the company unlawfully denied reasonable accommodations to hundreds of employees and disciplined and/or fired them pursuant to Verizon’s “no fault” attendance plans.

Background. In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland the same day the proposed consent decree was filed, the federal agency asserted that Verizon failed to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities, such as making an exception to its attendance plans for individuals whose “chargeable absences” were caused by their disabilities (DMd, No 1-11-cv-01832-JKB). Instead, according to the EEOC, the company disciplined or terminated employees who needed such accommodations.

The commission maintained that Verizon violated the ADA by refusing to make exceptions to its “no fault” attendance plans to accommodate employees with disabilities. Under the attendance plans challenged by the EEOC, if an employee accumulated a designated number of “chargeable absences,” Verizon placed the employee on a disciplinary step which could ultimately result in more serious disciplinary consequences, including discharge.

Settlement. The consent decree settling the suit is pending judicial approval. It resolves the EEOC’s lawsuit, an EEOC Commissioner charge, a charge filed by the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, and over 40 individual charges filed with the EEOC. The commission says it’s the largest disability discrimination settlement in a single lawsuit in EEOC history.

In addition to the $20 million in monetary relief, the three-year consent decree enjoins Verizon from engaging in any discrimination or retaliation based on disability, and requires the company to revise its attendance plans, policies and ADA policy to include reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities, including excusing certain absences. Verizon will also provide mandatory periodic training on the ADA to employees primarily responsible for administering the company’s attendance plans and report to the EEOC about all employee complaints of disability discrimination relating to the attendance policy and Verizon’s compliance with the consent decree. Additionally, Verizon will post a notice about the settlement and appoint an internal consent decree monitor to ensure its compliance.

The consent decree applies to certain Verizon wireline operations nationwide that employ union-represented employees. The investigation preceding the settlement involved coordinated systemic efforts by EEOC’s Baltimore Field Office and Newark Area Office.

Motivation to settle. In a statement to CCH, Verizon said that it complies with all employment laws, including the ADA, and that it has not conceded any violation of those laws in this case. Verizon agreed to settle the EEOC’s complaint “solely because it is in the best interest of our company, our employees and our customers to avoid the disruption, delay and expense of protracted litigation.”

Verizon also said the settlement provided the company “with clearer guidance from the EEOC regarding when it may be appropriate to provide additional leave as a reasonable accommodation under [the ADA] which was previously lacking and was a significant factor in Verizon agreeing to settle the matter.”

Additionally, Verizon “believes it has accommodated employees with fairness to all, consistent with a company that has a longstanding public record – recognized by many third parties — for commitment to and support of people with disabilities.” The company said its leave-of-absence and accommodation policies “continue to far exceed what is required by law.”

EEOC’s perspective. The EEOC underscored the need for employers to understand how the ADA applies to the administration of attendance and leave policies. “This settlement demonstrates the need for employers to have attendance policies which take into account the need for paid or unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities,” said Spencer H. Lewis, Jr., Director of the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office, which oversees Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and parts of New Jersey and Ohio.

“Hopefully this nationwide decree will further public awareness of the importance of engaging in an individualized interactive process to determine whether a disabled employee must be accommodated under the ADA,” remarked EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez.

“Flexibility on leave can enable a worker with a disability to remain employed and productive – a win for the worker, the employer and the economy,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien pointed out. “By contrast, an inflexible leave policy may deny workers with disabilities a reasonable accommodation to which they’re entitled by law – with devastating effects.”