As we grow our businesses, we miss some of the important little things that then become big things. I am no stranger to this fact of business life! Baltimore-based Media Star Promotions is a company that is “Committed to excellence, which means we work hard, we play hard and we make sure to make a positive impact on the world around us.” A recent experience with an employee taught them that:
As employers we cannot ask an individual to waive his or her civil rights. And, we cannot retaliate if the individual refuses our demands.
Referring to EEOC Notice Number 915.002, “An employer may not interfere with the protected right of an employee to file a charge, testify, assist, or participate in any manner in an EEOC investigation, hearing, or proceeding under Title VII, the EPA, the ADA, or the ADEA. These employee rights are non-waivable under the federal civil rights laws.”
In the discussion about the background of Notice 915.002 the EEOC reminded us, “Some employers attempt to limit an individual’s right to file a charge or participate in an EEOC proceeding by requiring him or her to sign an agreement in which s/he relinquishes these statutory rights. Such language may appear in contracts requiring the use of alternative dispute resolution procedures (such as mediation or arbitration), waiver agreements, employee handbooks, employee benefits plans, and “non-compete” agreements. Notwithstanding the format or context of the agreement in which such language might appear, promises not to file a charge or participate in an EEOC proceeding are null and void as a matter of public policy. Agreements extracting such promises from employees may also amount to separate and discrete violations of the anti-retaliation provisions of the civil rights statutes.”
This reminder came to us when the EEOC sued Media Star Promotions for disability discrimination. The news release about the suit stated that an employee (Amanda Matherly), began working as a field representative at Media Star’s Baltimore headquarters. As a field representative, her duties included traveling to outdoor festivals to distribute free product samples and gather customer contact information. Matherly has several allergies, including a severe allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. If she is exposed to peanuts or tree nuts, she will go into anaphylactic shock, and must be immediately injected with medication and hospitalized to prevent death, according to the suit.
The EEOC said that Matherly requested that Media Star reasonably accommodate her disability by providing vinyl gloves for her to handle a small number of items at company headquarters that may have been exposed to peanuts and to alert hotels and airlines about her allergies when making her travel arrangements.
The EEOC charged that Media Star refused to accommodate Matherly’s disability and instead improperly asked her to sign a form purporting to waive her rights under the ADA. When she refused, the company terminated her because of her disability and in retaliation for, and in interference of, her exercise of her rights under the ADA, according to the lawsuit.
“Employers simply cannot make employment decisions based on fears or biases about people with disabilities,” said EEOC Philadelphia District Director Spencer H. Lewis, Jr. “It would not have been a significant cost or business disruption for Media Star to reasonably accommodate Ms. Matherly, such as providing her with gloves to prevent exposure to allergens.” This case is an important reminder for each of us.
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