As the federal agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recognizes that disability employment awareness is crucial to building inclusive and accessible workplaces. We are actively supporting the implementation of Executive Order 13985, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” to identify and eliminate barriers to helping historically underserved communities, including people with disabilities. We also play a key role in implementing Executive Order 14035, “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) in the Federal Workforce,” which seeks to ensure that the federal government’s own employment practices serve as a model of excellence for DEIA, including with respect to advancing equity for employees with disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 percent of adults in the United States, or 61 million people, have a disability. Despite the immense value and skills that employees with disabilities contribute to the American workplace, thus far in 2022, only 22.5 percent of people with a disability participate in the workforce compared to 67.8 percent of people without a disability. And people with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, from March to April 2020, the number of employed working-age people with disabilities fell by 20 percent (950,000 people), while the number of employed working-age people without disabilities decreased by 14 percent. Workers with a disability who were in service occupations accounted for the largest share of the total decline in employment, representing 33.9 percent of the decline from February 2020 to July 2020. Additionally, the increased prevalence of long COVID has forced many people out of the workforce. In fact, the Brookings Institute estimates that 2 to 4 million people are unable to work due to long COVID.
As the nation recovers from the pandemic’s effects, the EEOC is committed to ensuring that employment discrimination does not prevent people with disabilities from sharing in the recovery. In addition to our work to support equal employment opportunity by implementing Executive Orders 13985 and 14035, in 2022, our agency’s successful litigation and appellate efforts achieved significant benefits for people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
- In February 2022, TrueBlue, Inc. and PeopleReady, Inc. – labor sourcing companies with offices across the country – agreed to pay $125,000 and furnish significant equitable relief to resolve a federal disability discrimination suit that the EEOC filed after the companies fired an employee because of her psychiatric disability. The consent decree provides for programmatic relief, including implementation of an ADA policy, training on ADA compliance, and periodic reports to the EEOC.
- In February 2022, Ranew’s Management Company agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit. An employee informed the company of his diagnosis of severe depression and requested to take three weeks off from work, per his doctor’s recommendation. Though the chief executive officer (CEO) initially told the employee to take as much time as he needed, when the employee tried to return to work, the CEO fired him. The consent decree provides for reporting, monitoring, training, creation, and distribution of ADA policies and a notice posting.
- In April 2022, S&C Electric Company agreed to pay $315,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit. The company wrongfully fired a principal designer, who worked at S&C for over 52 years and who was diagnosed with cancer, after the employee tried to return to work after being on medical leave due to a broken hip. The consent decree provides for maintaining and providing records to the EEOC, and it enjoins the company from engaging in retaliation with respect to the decree.
- In April 2022, the EEOC filed an amicus brief in support of an employee who worked as an operator at La Grange Acquisitions, a natural-gas-processing plant. The operator disclosed to the company that he had been arrested for drinking-related infractions due to his alcoholism and requested a finite amount of leave to obtain substance-abuse assistance during a three-month period. The company suspended the operator for a week while considering his leave request and then terminated him. The operator filed suit under the ADA for, among other things, the company’s failure to provide reasonable accommodation for his disability of alcoholism; however, the district court granted summary judgment to La Grange. The EEOC argued in its amicus brief that a reasonable jury could consider the operator’s alcoholism a disability under the ADA and that the operator requested a reasonable accommodation when he sought leave to obtain substance-abuse assistance.
- In June 2022, construction software developer Viewpoint, Inc. and its recruiter CampusPoint Corporation agreed to pay $225,000 and provide significant affirmative relief to resolve a disability discrimination lawsuit. The companies unlawfully rejected an applicant who was highly qualified because he requested an ASL interpreter for his group interview. The consent decree provides comprehensive evaluation of available accommodations for the hiring process as well as on the job; revision of the companies’ online application website; training to all managers and employees regarding accommodating deaf and hard-of-hearing applicants and employees; and incorporating provisions in staffing agency contracts requiring compliance with the ADA.
- In August 2022, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling and reinstated an ADA charge against Cash Depot, Ltd. filed by the EEOC on behalf of a field service technician who suffered a stroke while off duty. After recuperating, the field service technician informed the company that he could return to work, but with a 25-pound lifting, pushing, and pulling restriction, which still enabled him to do most of his work. Cash Depot, Ltd., nevertheless, terminated him. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the company; however, the appeals court sided with the EEOC, concluding that genuine issues of material fact existed and that the record did not establish that no jury could find discrimination under the ADA.
To help bridge employment gaps for workers with disabilities, in May 2022, the Commission released “The EEO Status of Workers with Disabilities in the Federal Sector.” This report shows that, although opportunities for workers with disabilities in the federal government are improving, more progress is needed to achieve an equitable workforce. The report also offers several key recommendations, including that federal agencies should act to increase the number of employees who self-identify their disability status by ensuring the confidentiality of this disclosure, and agencies should recruit people with a broad range of disabilities to improve hiring rates.
As a part of our Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Algorithmic Fairness Initiative, the EEOC has issued technical assistance to inform employers and others about how the use of AI and other software tools can inadvertently lead to discrimination against people with disabilities. For example, without proper safeguards, these tools can automatically exclude potential candidates who may have taken medical leave or been unable to work because of a disability.
The EEOC’s work in this area also includes our multi-year collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs known as the Hiring Initiative to Reimagine Equity (HIRE). Through HIRE, we plan to identify best practices that may result in access to good jobs for workers from underserved communities, including workers with disabilities. Last month, we held a roundtable to explore how automated technologies present potential barriers to DEIA and to discuss promising practices for using these systems to recruit and hire diverse workers in a fair, unbiased way.
As Audre Lorde, an esteemed American professor, civil rights advocate, and writer once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
This October, we celebrate the differences that make each of us unique as we build diverse, inclusive workplaces where all employees, including workers with disabilities, are recognized and fully accepted.
Charlotte A. Burrows (she/her)