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A Wendy’s franchisee’s settlement this week of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) lawsuit, brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), highlights both the increased aggressiveness of the federal agency toward fast food restaurants as well the need for employers to engage in an interactive process with job applicants and employees to make reasonable accommodations under the ADA.
The EEOC filed the lawsuit earlier this year against Waco, Texas based CTW LLC, which operates Wendy’s restaurants. The suit alleged that the CTW violated the ADA when it failed to hire Michael Harrison as a cook because of a hearing disability. The general manager at the restaurant where Harrison applied allegedly told Harrison that “there is really no place for someone we cannot communicate with.” The settlement requires CTW to pay $41,500.00 to Harrison and implement employee training as to compliance with the ADA.
Generally the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against qualified disabled individuals who can perform the essential functions of a job with or without reasonable accommodation. In light of the recent amendments to the ADA, broadening the definition of what qualifies as a disability under the Act, employers face an increased duty to engage in an interactive process with the applicant or employee to determine if a reasonable accommodation would allow the individual to perform the essential functions of the job. As reflected by the facts alleged in the lawsuit, the Wendy’s Manager perfunctorily excluded Harrison from being considered for the position because of his hearing impairment, without determining whether the impairment would actually have any effect on Harrison’s ability to perform the job, or if there was a reasonable accommodation that could be reached.
At many fast food restaurants, the store manager is solely responsible for all hiring decisions, but quite often, has not received adequate training in dealing with the ADA or other federal employment and anti-discrimination laws. A store manager’s poor decision, as in the Wendy’s case, can expose the franchisee to liability. Franchisees should make a point of providing such training to its entire managerial staff, and require that any questionable issues that arise be referred to its human resources professionals before employment decisions are made.