EEOC: Hershey Refused Accommodation to Disabled Employee on Return From Leave

One overriding message emerges from the recent onslaught of Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit: You, as the employer, must engage your disabled workers in a dialogue when they request an accommodation.  You don’t necessarily have to give the requested accommodation, but neither can you dismiss it out-of-hand or stiff the employee.

Now global candy manufacturer The Hershey Company must face the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in federal court over allegations that it refused to accommodate a disabled employee and fired her instead.

According to EEOC’s suit filed on July 19, Hershey was aware of Kristina Williams’s herniated discs and her lifting restrictions at the time of her hire in 2011 as a part-time retail sales merchandiser. Williams was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and took a short medical leave of absence in early 2015. The EEOC’s investigation found that when Williams requested flexibility to divide her daily break into smaller portions to help her stay within her lifting restrictions, Hershey refused to allow her to return to work, effectively suspending her for three months. Finally, in a letter dated Aug. 19, 2015, Hershey denied her request for accommodation and instead fired her.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees who have a disability. After first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process, the EEOC filed its lawsuit (EEOC v. The Hershey Company, Civil Number 2:17-CV-01092) in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The agency seeks monetary damages on behalf of Williams, training on anti-discrimination laws, posting of notices at the worksite, and other injunctive relief.

“Employers cannot ignore a request for a reasonable accommodation from an employee with a disability,” said Nancy Sienko, director of the EEOC’s Seattle Field Office. “The law requires an employer to explore possible solutions to ensure that a worker can perform the essential functions of her job.”

EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney John Stanley said, “Employers cannot unilaterally decide to respond to an injury by refusing to allow an employer to return to work. According to the ADA, the exploration of possible accommodations must include the input of the employee.”

According to company information, The Hershey Company is based in Hershey, Pa., employs over 20,000 people in 37 different states and had over $7.38 million in net sales in 2015, the year in which Williams last worked in the company’s Seattle District.

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