From 2005 to 2011, Jamie Wells was subjected to sexual harassment by a male co-worker at the Walmart in Akron, Ohio. Three weeks after Wells, who has developmental disabilities, filed a complaint, she was fired from the job she had worked at for more than 11 years. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has now filed a lawsuit against Walmart, alleging that the company violated the federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the grounds that it failed “to provide reasonable accommodations to Wells through adequate training, supervision, and communication regarding its anti-harassment policies.”
For several years, Wells worked as an associate in the Akron Walmart’s lawn and garden department. According to the EEOC, from about April 2005 through Jan. 7, 2011, Walmart allowed a male co-worker to sexually harass Wells, including inappropriate touching on the store’s premises. Managers at Walmart were made aware of the harassment but did not take “prompt or effective action to remedy the sexually hostile work environment.”
For its part, Walmart tells Disability Scoop that, on learning of Wells’ complaint, they ”investigated and took decisive action to terminate the man whom she was accusing. As part of our investigation, witness accounts led us to discover that Ms. Wells also engaged in inappropriate conduct which led to her dismissal.”
However, Regional Attorney Debra Lawrence of the EEOC’s says, “Ms. Wells’ impairment made her particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.” Indeed: Wells’s disabilities may have made her fearful of speaking up about the harassment, out of fears that she might have been disciplined or lose her job. Managers may well not have fully grasped any difficulties she had communicating, especially something like sexual harassment. It was Walmart’s responsibility to take action on behalf of Wells after being notified about it, as Lawrence states:
“Once this Walmart was put on notice of the harassment, it had a legal responsibility to take immediate and appropriate action to stop the misconduct. When an employer fails to do so, the EEOC must and will hold that employer accountable.”
With my own son Charlie, who is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, approaching his 16th birthday in May, I think all the time about preparing him for a job after he finishes school. Wells’s experience and lawsuit are a harsh reminder that the challenges Charlie and others with intellectual disabilities will face in the workplace are not only about job training and finding employment.
Other employees, from co-workers to managers, must receive not only training and education about disabilities. Policies need to be put into place that accommodate for the challenges and needs of individuals with disabilities. Charlie, for one, will need a job coach to support him and also to make sure that he is not taken advantage of.
Jobs in the Community, Not Sheltered Workshops, are the Goal
Walmart and some other large corporations have trumpeted their hiring of workers with disabilities. Certainly these companies’ efforts to provide opportunities for workers like Wells must be applauded. I really do hope that Charlie might have such a job in the community. Too many individuals with disabilities still work in what amount to segregated placements, in sheltered workshops.
Just recently, the U.S. Department of Justice has taken action to intervene in a federal lawsuit against the state of Oregon that alleges that is has failed to provide supported employment services for thousands of individuals with developmental disabilities. Rather, Oregon has warehoused them in sheltered workshops where they receive a subminimum wage.
Such job placements are too reminiscent of an earlier era when individuals with disabilities were routinely institutionalized and shut off from the rest of society. About a year ago, the Justice Department filed a statement that “limiting people with disabilities to employment in sheltered workshops is no different than restricting them to live in institutions,” says Disability Scoop.
As we work to create better employment opportunities in the community for individuals with disabilities — jobs in which they are paid a fair and just wage — we need to be sure, more than ever, also to create adequate accommodations and protections to ensure that they can work and thrive.
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Photo by Wesley Fryer