$800K Payment Ends Disability Leave Suit

Being too stingy with leave requested by employees with disabilities is problematic for employers.

And now a California company has felt the sting of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit over the matter.

Sensient Natural Ingredients LLC, a division of Sensient Technologies, has agreed to pay up to $800,000 ($600,000 to go to identified claimants and $200,000 for a potential group of unidentified claimants) and provide other significant relief to settle a charge of disability discrimination, the EEOC announced on Friday.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, several of Sensient’s workers at its Livingston, Calif., location took extended leaves of absence for disability-related care, including surgeries and cancer treatments. The EEOC charged that employees were either discharged for surpassing the company’s restrictive leave policy or were required to return to work without accommodations or restrictions. The EEOC contends that when employees attempted to return to work even without restrictions, Sensient refused to accept them back and fired them instead.

The EEOC filed its lawsuit in 2015 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California (EEOC v. Sensient Dehydrated Flavors Co., Sensient Natural Ingredients LLC, et al., Case No. 1:15-cv-01431-DAD-BAM) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement.

As part of the consent decree settling the suit, Sensient will pay $600,000 to a class of eight claimants and $200,000 for a contingent class fund that will be distributed if other claimants come forward. In addition to the monetary relief, Sensient also agreed to the designation of an internal equal employment opportunity monitor to review and revise, as necessary, the company’s policies against disability discrimination, retaliation, and its reasonable accommodation policies which include obtaining internal and external legal review of a denial of accommodation. Sensient further agreed to distribute the revised policies to all employees, provide training for both employees and management personnel, and designate an internal ADA coordinator who will assist the company in maintaining records. The EEOC will monitor Sensient’s compliance with this three-year decree.

“We commend Sensient for resolving this complaint and implementing measures on a national level to cultivate a workplace environment free from unlawful discrimination,” said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District, which includes Merced County, the site of the alleged discrimination, in its jurisdiction. “Given the rise of disability leave cases, we encourage other employers to also examine their own practices and promote compliance with the ADA.”

Melissa Barrios, director of the EEOC’s Fresno Local Office, said, “Oftentimes we forget that a disability can happen to anyone at any time. Finite leave policies that do not allow for reasonable accommodations, which in turn may result in the discharge of employees with disabilities, violate federal law.”

According to the company’s website, www.sensientnaturalingredients.com, the Turlock and Livingston, Calif.-based company offers a portfolio of continuously evolving ingredients, including the core offerings of California-grown onion, garlic, and parsley, as well as capsicums and vegetables

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