Verizon Communications has agreed to pay $20 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit charging the telecommunications giant with failing to accommodate hundreds of workers whose absences were caused by their disabilities.
The lawsuit and a consent decree settling the suit were filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The settlement amount was the largest of any single EEOC lawsuit alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, the commission said.
The EEOC's complaint said the company disciplined or fired workers who built up absences under a "no fault" attendance policy rather than making exceptions for those with disabilities.
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The lawsuit stemmed from charges filed in 2006 by two workers in Maryland and triggered a national investigation by the EEOC. The complaint named 24 Verizon subsidiaries, including Baltimore-based Verizon Maryland Inc.
Maria Salacuse, a supervisory trial attorney in the EEOC's Baltimore office, said that under Verizon's policy, "each time you were absent, regardless of the reason, you would accumulate points, and once you reach a certain point you can be disciplined and ultimately discharged."
She said the EEOC's position is that people with disabilities "may need to take leave as a reasonable accommodation."
However, a Verizon spokesman said the company's accommodation policies exceed what is required by law.
The company did not concede any violation of the ADA in the consent decree and agreed to settle to avoid protracted litigation, said Bob Varettoni, the spokesman. He said the settlement applied only to union-represented employees in the company's traditional telephone business and did not include Verizon Wireless workers.
Varettoni said in an email that the settlement provided Verizon with "clearer guidance" from the EEOC regarding leave as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"This was previously lacking and was a significant factor in Verizon agreeing to settle the matter," Varettoni said. "Verizon believes it has accommodated employees with fairness to all."
Salacuse said the EEOC and Verizon had been in negotiations for several years.
"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," said Jacqueline A. Berrien, EEOC chair, in a statement. "An inflexible leave policy may deny workers with disabilities a reasonable accommodation to which they're entitled by law — with devastating effects."
The consent decree, which is subject to approval by a judge, resolves not only the lawsuit but a charge by the EEOC commissioner; a charge filed by the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO; and more than 40 individual charges filed with the EEOC since 2006.
Varettoni said the settlement money would likely go almost entirely to former union-represented employees who filed a claim after being terminated for disability-related attendance reasons after January 2004.
Salacuse said that the EEOC estimated several hundred people would qualify for awards and that it would determine eligibility based on criteria agreed to in the decree; workers who have already filed a claim will be notified in September of a monetary award.
Other former union-represented workers will be notified in mid-October about deadlines and the process for submitting a claim; they will also be able to find information on a website to be created in October, according to the EEOC.
"I'm hopeful this is going to have the impact of causing employers to take a closer look at their attendance policies and making sure their attendance policies are compliant with the ADA," Salacuse said.
Until now, the largest monetary settlement of an ADA discrimination lawsuit was for $6 million in 2009 in a case against Sears, Roebuck and Co.
The EEOC said private-sector workplace discrimination charge filings rose to a record 99,922 in fiscal year 2010. Those filings included a record of more than 25,000 disability charges, a more than 17 percent increase over the previous year.