Cheesy Move by Papa John’s

by Jillian Levitt

On an episode of the television series Glee, Becky asks her friend, and fellow Cheerios cheerleader, Brittany to stay in high school with her forever, because “[t]he world is scary. Someday they will make me leave here, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”[1] Her fear is particularly poignant since Becky has Down syndrome and, due to her disability, her odds of obtaining employment after leaving school would be slight.[2] Actors such as Lauren Potter, who portrays Becky, have helped to show the public how valuable Down patients’ contributions in the workplace can be.[3] In the past few decades, the quality of life for individuals with Down syndrome has improved significantly.[4] Average life span has increased from twenty-five to sixty years, and many are graduating high school and taking college courses.[5] Still, however, a mere 14.2% of young adults with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome, are employed in positions paying at least minimum wage.[6] Even after the challenge of getting a job is met, the intellectually disabled are often subject to abuse, harassment and discrimination in the workplace.[7]

On September 29, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a press release, stating that it filed a lawsuit against Papa John’s Pizza for illegally firing Scott Bonn, an employee with Down syndrome.[8] The EEOC alleged that Papa John’s had successfully employed Bonn, while allowing an independently employed and insured job coach to assist him.[9] However, when an operating partner of the company visited the restaurant and observed Bonn working with a job coach, he ordered Papa John’s to fire Bonn.[10] The EEOC stated that Papa John’s violated “Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals by failing to reasonably accommodate their disabilities”[11] and that the use of a job coach is a “reasonable accommodation.”[12]

A job coach is someone who accompanies the disabled employee to work for a period of time until the individual can successfully perform the job independently.[13] The goal is inclusion-to help the disabled individual move into competitive employment within the community, as opposed to employment within secluded institutional workshop settings where all the workers are disabled.[14] The funds for job coaches generally derive from government sources such as a state’s department of developmental disabilities, department of vocational rehabilitation, or education department.[15] Thus, the employer has no direct monetary expense for the accommodation of a job coach. However, violations of the ADA provision, such as the denial of a disabled person’s request for a job coach or the termination of a disabled employee prior to consulting with a job coach, have resulted in large monetary settlements against employers.[16] In one case that proceeded to trial, the jury awarded $13 million in punitive damages, although the award was eventually reduced to $300,000 because of a statutory cap.[17]

It would seem that when an intellectually disabled employee is hired, employers would benefit from attending some type of basic sensitivity training together with their managers and staff.[18] Perhaps the local department of developmental disabilities or local disability advocate organization could provide assistance and encouragement.[19] In addition to the monetary advantage of avoiding large settlements due to possible violations of the ADA, employers would be helping to make the world less scary for people like Scott Bonn.

[1] officialswiftiegleek, Glee-Brittany and Becky Scene/Shooting Star, YouTube (Apr. 11, 2013), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9QfSRJcDhU.

[2] Written Testimony of Sharon Lewis, Comm’r, Admin. on Developmental Disabilities, to the U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services (Mar. 15, 2011), available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/meetings/3-15-11/lewis.cfm.

[3] See Sydney Lupkin, Actors with Down Syndrome Raise Awareness, ABC News (Sept. 14, 2012), http://www.abcnews.go.com/Health/actors-syndrome-raise-awareness/story?id=17230744.

[4] Liz Szabo, Life with Down Syndrome is Full of Possibilities, USA Today (May 9, 2013, 5:25 PM), http://usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/01/life-down-syndrome-improving/2054953.

[5] Id.

[6] See supra note 2.

[7] See Selected List of Pending and Resolved Cases Involving Intellectual Disabilities, EEOC (July 2012), http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/selected/intellectual_disabilities.cfm, for a list of relevant allegations.

[8] Press Release, U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n (Sept. 29, 2014), available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-29-14a.cfm?renderforprint=1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Employment & Volunteer Work, Nat’l Down Syndrome Soc’y, http://www.ndss.org/Resources/Transition-and-Beyond/Employment-Volunteer-Work/ (last visited Oct. 1, 2014).

[14] See Carol Kleinman, Job Coaches Help Disabled Meet Goal, Chi. Trib. (July 10, 1994), http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-07-10/news/9407130012_1_jobs-with-such-employers-job-coaches-disabled.

[15] See Deborah Metzel & Jennifer Bose, Show Me the Money: Flexible Funding for Job Success, Inst. For Cmty. Inclusion (May 2003), http://www.communityinclusion.org/article.php?article_id=150.

[16] See supra note 7.

[17] EEOC v. CECE Entertainment, No. 98-C-698-X, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13934 (W.D. Wis. Mar. 14, 2000).

[18] See Mary Strain, Physical & Mental Ability Diversity Training in the Workplace, Chron, http://smallbusiness.chron.com/physical-mental-ability-diversity-training-workplace-38723.html (last visited October 6, 2014).

[19] Viscardi Awarded $1.84 Million in Funding form U.S. Dept. of Labor, The Viscardi Center (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.viscardicenter.org/news-events/news/cooperative-agreement.html (last visited October 4, 2014).

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