A recent case where a diabetic cashier was fired for eating a bag of potato chips without paying for it has highlighted the importance for the management of any organization to understand the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Walgreens, the company that fired their worker, agreed to settle the claim that it had fired the cashier because of the employee’s disability, and not due to the theft of the bag of potato chips that cost $1.39.
The fired cashier, Josefina Hernandez, who had eaten the bag of chips when she experienced a hypoglycemic attack in an attempt to stabilize her level of blood sugar without first paying for it, will be receiving $180,000 from her former employer to resolve the ADA claim filed by her.
This settlement had followed the decision by US District Court for the Northern District of California on April 11, 2014.
When Explanation Was Not Enough
On September 17, 2008, Hernandez, while returning items to their respective positions on the shelves, noticed that she was sweating and shaking as a result of her low blood sugar. At that time, she didn’t have a candy readily available; as a result, she took a bag of potato chips that were in the cart. Without asking permission from her manager, she ate the chips.
According to Hernandez, once she started feeling better a couple of minutes after, she went to pay for the bag of chips at the cosmetic counter; apparently, no one was present at that counter. She was questioned regarding the bag of chips when a manager found the bag under the cash register. When asked for an explanation, Hernandez wrote, ‘My sugar low, not have time’.
The company’s security officer testified that he had not understood the comment and had not sought clarification over it.
Walgreens fired Hernandez for violating their anti-grazing policy, which is in place to fight approximately $350 million a year in theft by employees nationwide at Walgreens stores.
What Management Should Learn From This Case
ADA had been ‘dead’ for quite some time as many courts repeatedly had dismissed many Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits on the basis that employee’s health conditions were not in fact disabilities. In 2009, Congress amended ADA, and ‘no disability’ is no longer a valid defense.
Employers need to know how they should properly handle such cases. Making mistakes has them more exposed now than ever before.
Additionally, employers must consider the following:
- Ensure an HR expert is involved when terminating employees.
- Ensure that risk management/loss prevention personel have a understanding of employment laws so that any enforcement of law does not override fair employment practices and laws.
- Engage an ADA interactive process in cases where an employee claims their medical condition led to the violation of company rules.
- Review any termination thoroughly before taking action.
Organizations should give greater emphasis to and provide training on EEO issues, including ADA, to its management employees.