Judge OKs Suit by Deaf UPS Workers
A federal judge here Monday allowed five hearing-impaired workers to proceed with a class-action lawsuit against United Parcel Service for allegedly failing to promote or properly train deaf workers in safety procedures that included the handling of anthrax and other hazardous materials.
Disability rights lawyers said the case could set a precedent in the workplace treatment, training and career opportunities afforded tens of thousands of hearing-impaired workers nationwide.
Though he did not rule on the merits of the case, Judge Thelton Henderson set a June trial date for the lawsuit, originally filed in May 1998, said Larry Paradis, executive director of the Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates.
UPS Denies Allegations
The lawsuit alleges that UPS created “a glass ceiling” on promotions that has kept most deaf workers in bottom-rung, entry-level jobs. Hearing-impaired workers also allegedly were denied aids and services such as sign language interpreters even during critical safety training sessions.
The lack of proper training at UPS facilities nationwide has made jobs there extremely dangerous for deaf workers, Paradis said.
“There is danger inherent in any blue-collar job but especially at UPS, which handles packages in such large volumes,” he said. “UPS goes to great effort to train and retrain its workers in areas of safety but excludes deaf workers from that service.”
UPS spokeswoman Peggy Gardner denied the claim.
“UPS will defend itself in this particular case,” she said. “We have absolutely complied with the law in regards to the hearing-impaired. UPS is proud of its record for the hiring, accommodation and promotion of people with hearing and other disabilities.”
In his decision, Henderson allowed the 460 deaf people who have been employed at UPS since 1997 to be included in any injunction resulting from the lawsuit. The ruling also includes scores of hearing-impaired applicants who were denied employment at UPS.
Two hundred and forty-one hearing-impaired people remain at UPS. The company employs 320,000 workers in the United States. Many of the hearing-impaired have left because of the conditions, Paradis said.
Activists said that many deaf UPS workers have been denied access to Teletype phones they need to reach their families in an emergency. The deaf also allegedly have been excluded from safety meetings and, since they cannot hear audible alarms, have been left behind during fire and other emergency drills.
“No flashing lights indicated to me that the emergency alarm had been activated,” a plaintiff alleged. “Of course, the hearing employees knew to evacuate the building because they could hear the alarm sounding. No manager of supervisory staff came to notify me that the building should be evacuated.”
Another hearing-impaired UPS employee in Oakland, who is a plaintiff in the case, told lawyers that he could not understand oral safety precautions on the handling of anthrax given at a recent meeting because UPS refused to provide a sign language interpreter.
“The man was a handler of small packages and so this was very important safety information for him,” Paradis said. “But they didn’t have proper interpreters and didn’t even ask the deaf workers if they understood what was being explained to them.”
Suit Seeks Effective Job Communication
The lawsuit would require UPS to provide effective job communication that includes handwritten notes, interpreters and captioning on all training videos.
Activists said they want the company to allow deaf people to drive small trucks under 10,000 pounds. The law allows the deaf to operate such vehicles.
Gardner said the company has at least one hearing-impaired driver of small vehicles.
“We won’t do anything to the detriment of the people we have to serve, our customers,” she said. “And we won’t endanger the lives of our employees by putting them in jobs they are not equipped to handle.”