Why it matters

American Airlines’ return-to-work policy has resulted in a $9.8 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after the agency challenged the airline’s policy of requiring workers to be at “100 percent” in order to return to work. In practice, the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the EEOC asserted, because it meant that employees were not allowed to return to work until they had no disability-related restrictions on their job duties. The charging parties in the case had disabilities ranging from lupus to cancer to asthma, but the employer refused to provide accommodations such as intermittent leave or a stool behind the ticket counter for a worker with a standing restriction, said the EEOC. In addition to monetary relief, the consent decree—in which the employer did not admit liability—requires the airline to conduct additional ADA training and avoid violations of the statute going forward.

Detailed discussion

More than a dozen employees of American Airlines and subsidiary Envoy Air, Inc., filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, the workers alleged that the airlines had a “100 percent” return-to-work policy that required employees to be able to work without any restrictions.

The EEOC filed suit after investigating, asserting that since at least Jan. 1, 2009, the employer engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the statute by refusing to accommodate employees with disabilities, terminating employees with disabilities and failing to rehire employees. The policy requires that employees who are no longer able to do their job without reasonable accommodation find other jobs, apply for other jobs or compete for other jobs, without regard to reassignment as a reasonable accommodation.

For example, American did not provide intermittent leave as an accommodation, refused to provide a stool behind the ticket counter to accommodate an employee with a standing restriction, terminated several of the charging parties or placed them on unpaid leave, and told others they could not return to work until they had no restrictions related to their injuries and/or disabilities, according to the EEOC’s complaint.

To settle the charges—while still denying all of the allegations and maintaining they provide equal employment opportunities for all workers—the airlines entered a consent decree.

Pursuant to the agreement, the EEOC will hold an unsecured claim in American Airlines’ Fourth Amended Joint Chapter 11 Plan in the amount of $9.8 million. The ultimate dollar value of the settlement will depend upon the trading price of the airline’s stock, the parties acknowledged, with the decree fully enforceable no matter the trading price. The airlines took responsibility for administration costs up to $150,000.

Equitable relief was also provided by the defendants, with a promise to end the challenged return-to-work policy, refrain from taking part in any employment practices that discriminate or retaliate on the basis of disability, engage in the interactive process with employees who request a reasonable accommodation, and remove references to the litigation from the charging parties’ personnel files.

Additional training on the requirements of the ADA will be provided to all employees, with extra time allotted for human resources workers and ADA coordinators, a newly designated position with responsibilities to oversee the defendants’ compliance with the statute and the consent decree.

To read the consent decree in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. American Airlines, Inc., click here.