Deaf and hearing impaired employees of United Parcel Service (UPS) will receive $10 million in financial damages and benefit from changes in company policy as the result of a settlement announced yesterday (7/22) in the midst of a trial that had been otherwise expected to last through the end of this year. The nation’s fourth-largest employer will pay damages to approximately 1,000 current and former UPS employees, and has agreed to provide provide deaf workers with effective communications, including interpreters, for interviews, orientation, training, safety meetings and disciplinary sessions. (See New York Times article.) The settlement is also expected to prompt other large employers to make similar changes to ensure that deaf employees are fully accommodated in the workplace.
In 1998, deaf workers, represented by the California-based Disability Rights Advocates and the law firm of Schneider & Wallace, filed a class action lawsuit before the federal district court in San Francisco, California. Some of the accusations made in the lawsuit were that UPS maintained a “glass ceiling” that excluded hearing-impaired employees from advancement, and that the company jeopardized the health and safety of deaf employees by failing to provide interpreters and address communication barriers that prevented deaf employees from receiving important safety and emergency information. (See DRA Representative Cases summary). In 2001, federal district court judge Thelton E. Henderson ruled that the case could proceed as a class action on behalf of 900 to 1000 current and former employees of UPS, as well as deaf applicants who were not hired for UPS jobs. (See U.S. District Court order.)
Since early April 2003, the parties were involved in a federal court trial in San Francisco that was expected to last through the end of 2003. (See AP article.) The deaf workers and their attorneys planned to prove in the trial that hearing-impaired UPS employees were “systematically marginalized,” because the company failed to provide sign-language interpreters during emergency and workplace training, and rarely promoted deaf employees to delivery driving or supervisory roles. The lawsuit also attacked UPS’s policy of denying hearing-impaired workers jobs operating delivery trucks weighing under 10,000 pounds, even though government safety guidelines do not require this policy, and other services such as the U.S. Postal Service and Federal Express allow deaf drivers to drive some smaller trucks. Over 30 deaf plaintiffs testified that they were routinely excluded from workplace information, denied opportunities for promotion, and exposed to unsafe conditions due to lack of accommodations by UPS. (See Schneider & Wallace press release.) For example, one plaintiff, Babaranti Oloyede, said that UPS refused to provide him with an interpreter, despite his repeated requests, for trainings on detailed safety instructions during the anthrax scare in 2001 that killed and injured a number of postal workers. Other plaintiffs spoke of how UPS lacked any system to alert them to emergencies, such as fires or chemical spills, to ensure that they would be evacuated safely. In fact, a number of class members related how they were overlooked and forgotten during such emergency evacuations and drills. Many employees noted the lack of phone access for emergencies due to UPS’ failure to provide a text telephone, although hearing employees all had access to telephones.
Settlement negotiations were ongoing, before and during the trial, and on July 22, the $10 million settlement was announced. Of the $10 million settlement, $5.8 million in monetary damages will be distributed to class members, while $4.1 million will be allocated for attorneys’ fees and costs. Named class members will receive approximately $60,000 each, while other class members will receive an amount based on factors such as their length of employment and the level of discrimination suffered. (See Mercury News article.) Other changes that will benefit deaf workers include: UPS will spend $100,000 to track promotions and ensure that deaf employees and job applicants have access to certified interpreters; and the company will provide text telephones and vibrating pagers to alert deaf employees to emergency evacuations. (See AP article.)
Despite the settlement, one aspect of the case remains unresolved, and will become the primary subject of a continuing trial. UPS did not agree to change its policy which prohibits deaf drivers from driving smaller UPS trucks. UPS spokesperson Peggy Gardner states the company’s position on that issue: “This issue is one of safety, not a disability or discrimination issue. UPS believes that any individual that cannot meet those minimum standards set by the Department of Transportation should not be driving a UPS truck. We feel very strongly about that, which is why we did not come to an agreement.” What the statement does not reflect is that the Department of Transportion does not apply those minimum standards to trucks weighing under 10,000 pounds, and so the issue remaining is whether UPS can choose to apply standards that exceed minimum government requirements when those standards discriminate against disabled employees.
Deaf plaintiffs appear pleased with the outcome. Plaintiff Oloyede, who has worked at UPS for over 10 years, said, “I suffered for all those years. I’m hoping that in the future, deaf people will not feel like second-class citizens but will feel that they have equal opportunities with their hearing co-workers. . . . Our reason for filing was to stop the suffering.” The proposed settlement requires court approval after notice is distributed throughout the country and a fairness hearing is held. The parties hope for final approval by the end of the year.
Attorneys hope the case will also send a message to other corporate employers about how to accommodate their hearing-impaired employees. Caroline Jacobs of DRA remarked, “We hope that this settlement sends a message to all employers throughout the country that employees with disabilities are entitled to the same rights and opportunities as other employees in the workplace.” While it remains to be seen what ripple effect, if any, this case will have, the sheer size and prominence of UPS as an employer will ensure that this settlement, and the new policies and practices it will spawn, will certainly be noticed by other employers.