Circle K Stores Inc. agreed to pay $8 million after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accused the company of failing to provide reasonable accommodations to and retaliating against workers with disabilities and pregnant employees, the EEOC recently announced.
The company allegedly subjected these employees to actions such as involuntary unpaid leave, retaliation, requiring employees be 100 percent healed to return to work and terminations, an EEOC investigation found.
The actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
"When employers have rigid maximum leave policies with no flexibility to give additional leave for a disability or pregnancy-related reason, they are in serious danger of running afoul of the law," Mary Jo O'Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC's Phoenix District Office, said in a statement. "Employers who don't give current employees a reassignment to an open position after the employer decides there is no reasonable accommodation available in the current position are also in danger of violating the law."
As part of the four-year settlement, Circle K has agreed to:
- Update its policies as needed.
- Appoint a coordinator to provide oversight on pregnancy-related disability policies, requests for reasonable accommodations and maintenance of records.
- Conduct climate surveys and exit interviews with specific attention to their accommodation process.
- Provide anti-discrimination training to all employees, including management.
- Require that performance evaluations of managers include consideration of compliance with equal employment opportunity laws.
Circle K voluntarily entered the pre-litigation agreement through the EEOC's conciliation process, which prevented a potential lawsuit against the company.
"We are pleased Circle K worked cooperatively with the EEOC to reach this conciliation agreement and, through our joint efforts, we have been able to bring about real change at Circle K without resorting to litigation," EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said in a statement.
Complying with FMLA, ADA
Andrew M. Gordon, an attorney with Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the charges against Circle K highlight the importance of understanding the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the ADA.
"Taking hard stances on bright-line policies and procedures when it comes to the FMLA and ADA is often a recipe for disaster," Gordon said.
He explained that companies must use a practical and pragmatic approach to achieve the spirit of these two laws, accommodating eligible employees who are experiencing various issues in their lives that might have an impact on their ability to work.
"However, from time to time, employers simply won't be able to provide accommodations that allow for certain employees to continue working," Gordon noted. "But it's the process in reaching that result, or any other result, that is so important when attempting to comply with these two very difficult laws."
Questions Employers Should Ask Themselves
Dannie Lynn Fountain, HR staffer at Google and diversity, equity and inclusion expert, was "fascinated" by the vagueness of the alleged request that employees must wait until they are "100 percent healed" after pregnancy to return to work.
"According to some medical professionals, it can take up to two years for abdominal muscles to heal, and up to a year or more for the overall emotional and physical health of a pregnant person to truly stabilize," she said. "Was Circle K's recommendation that individuals who give birth be unable to return to work for more than two years? If so, did they fail to consider, or not care about, the impact of two years of no work for a new parent?"
She added that unpaid leave, retaliation and termination harm pregnant employees through "corporate financial abuse."
"Pregnant employees, like all employees undergoing medical care for a present condition, face a number of additional stressors that can impact their mental health and work productivity through no fault of their own," she said.
Providing reasonable accommodations such as remote work, flexible working hours, adjusted workstation accommodations and adjusted responsibilities for overly physical roles can lead to less work-related stress for pregnant workers, Fountain said.
She noted that the parameters to which Circle K agreed as part of the settlement are effective steps for any company to proactively take when supporting pregnant employees. Employers should also ask themselves:
- How often are we surveying employees returning from parental leave or FMLA?
- How often are we re-evaluating health insurance to ensure that it covers all the increasing costs related to having a family?
Listening to the needs of pregnant workers can also create a more inclusive environment for them, Fountain said.
"Had Circle K taken the time to truly listen to pregnant employees," she explained, "there are collaborative outcomes that could have been reached [prior to EEOC involvement]."