(Not) a Game of Chicken: Poultry Retailer Settles EEOC ADA Suit Over Disability-Related Absences

This poultry company’s failure to excuse an employee’s time off to recover from heart surgery came back to bite it financially.

Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, a leading provider of retail poultry products, will pay $50,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced May 16.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, Pilgrim’s Pride failed to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee by not excusing his disability-related absences. The employee, who worked at Pilgrim’s Pride’s Guntersville, Alabama facility, requested and was granted leave to cover absences due to heart surgery. When he attempted to return to work, however, the company claimed he had not been granted leave and fired him for violating the company’s attendance policy.

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities, including granting unpaid leave, unless doing so presents an undue hardship to the employer.

The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, Civil Action No.4:18-cv-01570) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, after first attempting to reach a voluntary, pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

In addition to the $50,000 in monetary relief, the four-year consent decree prohibits Pilgrim’s Pride from subjecting any employee to disability discrimination in the future.  Pilgrim’s Pride must also take specified actions designed to prevent future discrimination, including issuing written notice to employees of their rights under the ADA to a reasonable accommodation in the company’s leave information packet; a requirement Pilgrim’s Pride will not assign points for attendance-related issues when an employee is absent or tardy due to known disability-related reasons; developing and communicating company policies designed to ensure a discrimination-free workplace; and providing annual anti-discrimination training to all supervisors, managers, and other employees at the company’s Guntersville, Alabama facility.

“We commend Pilgrim’s Pride for its willingness to settle this case, which contained serious allegations of discrimination, early in the litigation process,” said EEOC Birmingham Regional Attorney Marsha Rucker. “The significant monetary award and the corrective measures in this decree should prevent this kind of alleged misconduct from happening in the future.”

Bradley Anderson, the EEOC’s district director for the Birmingham District Office, said, “Nearly 30 years after the enactment of the ADA, some employers are still enforcing inflexible attendance policies that ignore the requirements of the law and drive qualified workers with disabilities out of the workforce. This lawsuit is a reminder to employers they have an obligation to make exceptions to attendance policies and provide leave as a form of reasonable accommodation unless doing so would result in undue hardship.”

According to company information, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation operates in 14 states across the United States and in Europe and Mexico. The company has more than 40,000 employees, including approximately 1,500 employees at its Guntersville location.

Addressing emerging and developing areas of the law, including inflexible leave policies that discriminate against individuals with disabilities, is one of six national priorities identified by the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan.

The EEOC’s Birmingham District consists of Alabama, Mississippi (except 17 northern counties) and the Florida Panhandle.

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