Linda worked in retail for a national employer in a store in Tennessee. She is a Type 1 Diabetic who was using an insulin pump. Linda was having difficulty regulating her blood sugar and asked her manager if she could keep a sugary substance on her person in the event that she gets a low blood sugar reading. Type 1 Diabetics run the risk of having serious complications if their blood sugar gets too low. This can result in a coma. When the blood sugar drops, they need to eat or drink something quickly to bring their blood sugars back up.
Linda’s manager told her that she could not have sweets on her person because that was not the look or image that he wanted for his store. Linda had a low blood sugar level, and she grabbed an orange juice from the cooler. When her sugar was stabilized, she went to the cashier and paid the $1.89 for the cost of the juice. She kept the receipt in her purse. A week or two later, her boss and Loss Prevention came in and fired her. Why? Because Linda was not permitted to keep a sugary snack with her to accommodate her diabetes. She was fired for drinking the orange juice in a medical emergency. They did not care that she had the receipt.
The total amount that this case cost the employer was approximately $750,000. This included what it must pay to Linda for damages and what it had to pay for Linda’s counsel because she was a prevailing party. In addition, the employer had to pay for its own legal fees, deal with poor employee morale, and considerable negative publicity.
Why am I sharing this story? Because this exemplifies how important it is to train managers. In fact, managers should be trained before something happens.
I played sports when I was younger and am a pretty big fan. An outfielder on a baseball team needs to know what to do if the ball is hit to him. Imagine it is the bottom of the 9th and the winning run is on third and there is one out. A short fly ball is hit to right field and the outfielder catches the ball but does not know what to do next. He should be throwing the ball to the catcher. Imagine the lead actor in a play who does not know her lines. She has to stop the show in order to learn what to say or do next. No, she needs to know those lines before the curtains go up.
The manager in that retail store should have responded to Linda by telling her that he would check with HR and either he or HR would get back to her. It is unrealistic to expect the manager to know how to respond to Linda. What he should have known is that this was a matter for HR to handle. Had he done that, one would hope that a national company properly trained HR on how to handle this.
So, what should HR have done if given the chance? Type 1 Diabetes is considered a disability. As a result, Linda had the right to request a reasonable accommodation. The employer should have engaged in the interactive process to determine whether it was possible to find a reasonable accommodation so that Linda could perform the essential functions of the job.
One can also argue that this amounted to a missed opportunity to gain trust of employees. The manager should have thanked Linda for coming to him. He could have told her that these matters are taken seriously and that he will check with HR and get back to her as soon as possible. He could have been polite and demonstrated empathy for what she was going through. All of this amounts to a missed opportunity.
In the actual case, Linda Atkins sued Dollar General in Tennessee and her case was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.