Employers enforce some stupid policies sometimes, for sure, but this one absolutely takes the cake! (or the chips, as it were) Last week, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was forced to file a federal court suit against Walgreens for throwing a long-term employee with diabetes out on the street in 2008 after she ate a bag of $1.39 chips to offset a glucose low. She paid afterward, but hadn't wanted to abandon her cash register at that moment when the shakes hit.
Now Spanish-speaking Josefina Hernandez, 54, who lives in San Francisco (right in our backyard!) has been unemployed for the past three years, after 18 years of loyal service at a local Walgreens store. She had a perfect record, without any type of incident, and both the store manager and assistant manager knew she had diabetes, according to the lead EEOC attorney representing her, Cindy O'Hara, whom I interviewed over the phone along with ex-employee Josefina herself yesterday.
Apparently, Illinois-based Walgreens has a "no-tolerance policy" for any employee consuming or using any Walgreens product before it's paid for. "But an employer has an affirmative obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to make to accommodations for employees with disabilities. Any time employers try to enforce these across-the-board rules that don't take into account disabled employees who can't fit with those policies, they run into problems. We see it all the time," O'Hara told me.
Sure, there's general corporate shortsightedness, but in this case we are talking about an employer that calls itself "America's pharmacy" and purports to help millions of people with their diabetes! They even work closely with the Joslin Diabetes Center, and publish a magazine called Diabetes & You! Apparently that's just a vehicle for distributing coupons, ay?
Helloooo! Is anyone in management even thinking over there?! To quote an expert cited in the San Francisco Chronicle: "One wonders whether a long-term, experienced employee is worth less than a bag of chips to Walgreens."
In broken English, Josefina told me: "It's terrible when I lose my job ... even now, I feel like useless, you know... My daughter is working now, and and my husband is supporting me — paying for medication, food and everything."
Just wait until you hear the details of her case. I've rarely felt so sad and angry at the same time.
This is the story according to the lawyer O'Hara, translating for Josefina, who takes insulin twice a day. She was behind the cash register in September 2008 when she felt the hypoglycemia coming on:
"She started feeling sweaty and shakey. Usually she had candy in her pocket, but she reached in and there wasn't one, so she thought, 'oh no!'"
"They have a policy that you're not allowed to ring yourself up during your shift, and she didn't want to leave her register, so she just grabbed the chips and ate them, intending to pay later.
"The assistant manager saw this, came over and grabbed the bag of chips and took it back to the manager's office. Josefina was sent to Loss Prevention Unit, where she picked up the chips and paid for them. She was asked if she ate the chips without paying, and she said yes. She was asked to write a statement about why, and this is what she wrote:
"This all happened on the last day of work before a planned and approved two-week vacation. When she returned, she was immediately sent to see the Loss Prevention Manager, who suspended her for three days. When she called back after that time, he said, 'You're fired.'"
With no small wonder in her voice, O'Hara adds: "One would imagine they would have policies to deal with special cases or health incidents like this. We believe they need some Remedial Measures here — training for managers and HR, updates in procedures, and changes in policy."
In fact, the federal court case is seeking just that — retraining for Walgreens on handling the Americans with Disabilities Act (helllooo, health company!), along with back pay for Josefina for the last three years; 'Compensatory Damages' to cover her pain and suffering; and 'Punitive Damages' against Walgreen's "reckless behavior in not following the law" (ADA act).
Geezus, the woman was trying to prevent an emergency situation. I'm sure Walgreens wouldn't want her to pass out at the register.
I'm just glad that Josefina found her way to the EEOC, through some Mexican-American community organizations in Oakland, to get some help. Makes us wonder how many other diabetic clerks or salesman or office workers might be losing their jobs and their dignity over some diddly incident like this without any recourse??
** UPDATE 9/14/11, 3pm PST **
Rightfully, we should have noted that Walgreens, like other companies, has a policy against releasing any details on pending court cases.
However, after this post was published, Walgreens Media Relations manager Robert Elfinger sent us the following statement:
"While we are reluctant to discuss pending litigation, it appears the employee did not claim at the time of the incident that her condition was the reason she was consuming chips before paying for them."
In other words, the company is directly contradicting everything the EEOC and the plaintiff told us. No surprise there!
Also: the reason this case didn't come to light earlier (I asked the same question) is apparently because Josefina spent a bunch of time finding a Spanish-language help organization to begin with, then was only connected with the EEOC much later, and when they began work on the case, they still needed about a year to get the whole thing filed, they say. "These things go reaaaally slowly," O'Hara told me.