Back in grade school, taking a sick day meant coming in the next day with a note for the teacher explaining the absence. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the national department store chain Dillards took that old-school practice too far when it required detailed information about employees’ medical conditions in return for sick leave. Dillards is settling with the EEOC for $2 million, bringing to an end a four-year class action suit alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As is usual in these cases, Dillards denied wrongdoing and says it settled to get the whole thing over with.
Dillards required employees to submit a doctor’s note explaining, in detail, what they were being treated for. EEOC says employees who resisted sharing the intimate details of the health with human resources staff were often fired. Many of those employees were advised by their doctors not to reveal their conditions, but that didn’t cut any ice with the company. Dillards defended the snooping as necessary to confirm the sick time was legitimate; EEOC says it isn’t unless the treatment details are job-related and essential to the employer’s business. The agency says store managers harassed employees and forced them to share information about gynecological problems, mental health issues, and cancer.
The deal requires Dillards to compensate the original 75 plaintiffs and establish a fund for several thousand others, not yet identified, who are expected to come forward. After legal fees and costs, the settlement checks are likely to be modest. The company must hire a consultant to review its HR policies and train managers on federal laws. The settlement money is available to people who worked at Dillards between August 16, 2005 and August 15, 2009, and anyone who believes they were unfairly fired after May 28, 2008 for taking too much sick leave.
Workers need to bear in mind that, with a few exceptions, it is none of the employer’s business what goes on in the doctor’s office. Deliberately abusing sick time is another matter and an employer can ask for information in cases where an employee suffers too many episodes of the Monday-Friday flu or something similar. Federal law strictly protects personal health information and assesses significant penalties against people and organizations that misuse it.
Source: The Associated Press, “Dillards pays $2 million to settle discrimination claims,” Sam Hananel, Dec. 12, 2012.