June 12, 2012

How the Proposed Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Might Affect Female Kentucky Workers

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ensure that women were not discriminated against while pregnant. The act prohibits employers from refusing to hire a woman because she is pregnant; requires an employer to treat a pregnant woman the same as someone with a different temporary disability if she is unable to work temporarily; and requires an employer to provide the same type of health insurance at the same rate as other employees.

But there are some issues that the current act does not cover, which is why legislators introduced a new bill called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in May 2012. This act would essentially afford pregnant women the same protections and flexibility that those with disabilities are given. Under the current act, many employers are not accommodating to pregnant women because they don't have to be. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not cover pregnant women because they are not actually disabled, and some companies take advantage of the difference. Many cases illustrate this discrepancy. Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) gives this example: "We see that male firefighters who throw out their backs are given desk jobs, but women who are pregnant don't get them...There is an ability to provide accommodations, but employers don't want to."

Some women don't even request an accommodation because they are afraid their boss will force them to take their paid time off guaranteed by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) too soon. If a woman takes off too soon, she may end up having to take unpaid time right before and after her delivery, something many families cannot afford. Others who have asked have been ignored or fired.

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June 5, 2012

Company Settles Kentucky Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Known as the sponsor of the 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Alltech is an international company based in Nicholasville, Kentucky that produces animal feed, a beef product, coffee and alcoholic beverages. According to a lawsuit against the company that recently settled, it also allegedly produces a hostile work environment for female employees.

A woman who worked for Alltech for about four years filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company in May 2011. She had allegedly been harassed by her boss for the duration of her employment. The harassment ranged from sexual calls and emails to actually being locked in a conference room and inappropriately touched by him. She also claims that other employees were sexually harassed by her boss and others, stating "The culture and leadership at Alltech created an environment which fostered and condoned acts of sexual harassment."

The employee allegedly reported the situation to her boss's supervisor who told her not to worry about it because she was a strong woman and could take care of herself. In April 2011 she went to someone who worked outside the company - an auditor - and reported what had been happening. It was announced shortly thereafter that all emails over a year old would no longer be kept, and Alltech began an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations. Her boss resigned from the company, but was kept on for special projects at the beginning of May 2011.

Then on May 17, the company stated that any employee disputes would be handled through arbitration rather than through the courts. The employee was told this new policy would cover her complaints even though she had complained before the policy was put in place. The employee did not agree with this policy and she left the company and filed a lawsuit on May 20, 2011. Alltech tried to have the lawsuit dismissed based on their new arbitration policy, but the courts said the employee had not agreed to the policy and the case was allowed to proceed. To avoid having depositions taken of their executives and other employees, the company agreed to settle the lawsuit with the Kentucky worker for an undisclosed amount.

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May 30, 2012

Would the Paycheck Fairness Act be good for Female Kentucky Workers?

Equal pay for women has been an issue for many years. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was enacted to ensure that men and women who did the same job at the same place of business and had the same experience would receive the same amount of pay. If a discrepancy in pay was found, the lower paying employee, presumably the woman, would receive an increase in pay, rather than the man's pay being reduced. The act allowed a woman to receive up to three years in back pay, or double that amount if it was discovered that she had been willfully discriminated against in her pay. The slogan for the act was "equal pay for equal work."

People disagree on whether or not the Equal Pay Act has been affective in ensuring women receive equal pay. Those who feel it has not been affective are promoting a new bill called the Paycheck Fairness Act. This new act adds on to the Equal Pay Act in the following ways:

Clarifies what reasons are acceptable for pay differences between men and women;

allows wages to be compared within certain geographical areas to determine fairness;

makes retaliating against an employee for investigating wage differences prohibited;

increases amount and type of damages that can be requested to both compensate the employee and penalize the employer;

includes small businesses in the law rather than requiring an employer to have a larger number of employees for the law to apply;

provides funds for training EEOC staff regarding pay disputes and for educating women on how to negotiate a salary;

requires federal contractors to provide employment data regarding hiring and salaries to help the Labor Department enforce the Equal Pay Act.

Proponents of the bill say all of these factors would add up to women receiving equal pay in the workplace because it would facilitate investigating the wage gap, protect those who raise the question of unequal pay, impose stiffer penalties for pay discrimination by employers and provide training to those who need it.

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May 23, 2012

Can Protective Orders Lead to Indiana Job Discrimination and Wrongful Termination?

Employees are discriminated against for many reasons, including their age, the color of their skin, whether they are male or female and their religious beliefs. Recently an Indiana court was asked to consider whether or not an employee was discriminated against because she asked for a protective order against an abusive ex-boyfriend. While the two may seem unrelated at first, there is a definite connection.

A female employee at Pitney Bowes requested a protective order from the court to keep her abusive ex-boyfriend from having any contact with her. When it was granted, she told her employer about it. Her employer put her on paid leave for about two weeks to determine how to handle the situation. When the employee called for an update on November 1, 2011, she was told she had been fired. Her supervisors did not deny that her firing was based on the protective order; rather they said that was the exact reason she was let go. They said they had to consider the safety of their other employees.

The fired employee's attorney said he tried to negotiate with the company to get her job back, but it wasn't until a discrimination lawsuit was filed that Pitney-Bowes offered to find the Indiana employee a position in a different location. The agreement has not yet been finalized. The lawsuit claimed gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the majority of people who seek protective orders are women; so a company that discriminates against employees that request protective orders is essentially discriminating against women.

Women's advocates fear that this potential discrimination will keep abused women from filing protective orders. They may feel they have to stay in an abusive relationship to keep from losing their jobs. Fifteen states currently have laws that prevent employees from being fired for seeking legal protection from an abuser, but Indiana is not one of them. The state does have a law that compensates women with unemployment benefits if they have to quit their jobs because of an abusive or violent domestic situation. Unfortunately, the state of Kentucky does not have either of the above laws to help women who were or are in an abusive relationship and want to get out. Hopefully that will change in the near future.

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May 16, 2012

Kentucky Workers File Employment Lawsuit against Prison Company

1226064_prison_cells_2.jpgPrisons are often riddled with problems. It is a tough place to work. Most people would not even consider working for the prison system for a career. But many of those that do work hard for every penny they earn. Some Kentucky prison employees feel they are not being adequately compensated for their work.

The Marion Adjustment Center is a private prison in Kentucky. It is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Six current and previous employees have filed an employment lawsuit claiming they were not paid for extra hours they had to work. Oftentimes they were required to stay past the end of their shifts to wait for their replacements or to travel between prisons, both on their personal time. They were also expected to attend training sessions on their days off.

Why would an employer think asking employees to work more than the hours they were paid for would be okay? The employees in question are, or were, shift supervisors. According to the company, employees that hold this position are exempt. "Exempt" means they are not entitled to overtime. Businesses can claim that certain employees are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA provides a list of categories of employees who could be exempt from receiving overtime pay as well as specific types of employees. Those who could be exempt range from babysitters to farm workers to executives. According to the Department of Labor's (DOL) website regarding the FLSA:

"Exemptions are narrowly construed against the employer asserting them. Consequently, employers and employees should always closely check the exact terms and conditions of an exemption in light of the employee's actual duties before assuming that the exemption might apply to the employee. The ultimate burden of supporting the actual application of an exemption rests on the employer."

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May 8, 2012

Women File Ohio and Indiana Discrimination Lawsuits after Being Fired for Wanting to Have Children

1365997_church.jpgA recent ruling by the Supreme Court has brought to light a legal issue regarding employees of religious institutions that was fairly unknown. "Ministerial exception" is a doctrine that allows religious institutions to make employment decisions without the interference of the federal government. Most employers are governed in part by several federal laws that prevent discrimination and wrongful termination based on age, race, religion, place of origin, and gender. However, those employees who work for church-affiliated organizations may find these laws do not protect them.

In some situations, ministerial exception appears to make sense. A Catholic church should not be forced to hire a Jewish rabbi to perform their services because they are not allowed to discriminate against anyone based on religion. But when it comes to employees such as administrators, school teachers, and hospital workers, when the exception should apply is unclear. In the case heard by the Supreme Court, a school teacher was terminated and she filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming she has been terminated because she had narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder. Officials at the parochial school claimed the lawsuit was invalid because she worked for a religious institution and their decision was covered by the ministerial exception. The Supreme Court agreed.

Two cases that were filed recently illustrate the need for greater definition as to whom the exception applies and to whom it does not apply. In an Indiana discrimination lawsuit, a woman claims she was fired from her teaching position at a Catholic school because she and her husband were attempting to have another child through in vitro fertilization. She had been undergoing the treatments for about a year when the church school didn't renew her 2010 teaching contract. She was told she was terminated because she had gone against the beliefs of the Catholic Church when she started the in vitro treatments and that "[t]he Diocese has clear policies requiring that teachers in its schools must, as a condition of employment, have a knowledge of and respect for the Catholic faith, and abide by the tenets of the Catholic Church as those tenets apply to that person."

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May 1, 2012

Manager of Kentucky KFC Yum! Center Files Whistleblower Lawsuit

The KFC Yum! Center was opened in Louisville, Kentucky with much fanfare in October 2010. Ted Nicholson, general manager of the arena, took part in the excitement and was set to manage the arena through numerous upcoming venues, including the NCAA Tournament this year. Then in February 2012, Harold Workman, president of the Kentucky State Fair Board (KSFB), fired him, much to the surprise of the rest of the fair board and Mr. Nicholson himself. The KSFB chairman tried to get him reinstated to his position, but was unsuccessful. The University of Louisville then hired him to oversee the NCAA Tournament, which appeared to be successful.

With the tournament over, Mr. Nicholson has focused his energy on seeking justice for his alleged wrongful termination. On April 27, 2012, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit against KSFB. A whistleblower is someone who reports a company for a variety of reasons, including illegal activities, mismanagement of funds, corruption, and health or safety violations. This information may be divulged to someone else within the company, an outside person, or law enforcement. If the company retaliates against the whistleblower in any way, including termination, the whistleblower can file a lawsuit. Whistleblowers in Kentucky are protected by federal laws as well as the Kentucky Whistleblower Act. This state act protects employees who divulge information to the proper authorities. It does not allow employees to share confidential or incorrect information, and it gives employers the right to find out what information the employee has shared. Employees who share incorrect information can face disciplinary action.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Nicholson believes he was retaliated against after telling an outside consultant about some of the issues the arena was having and attributing them to Mr. Workman. The consultant had been hired to review the operation of the arena and Nicholson states his answers to the firm's questions were "honest and sincere." He claims that numerous unqualified employees were hired because they were acquainted with the fair board president and events that were not profitable continued to be booked. When the negative report came back from the consultant, Nicholson claims he was reprimanded by Mr. Workman and ultimately terminated because of it in February. The board president has announced his plan to retire at the end of the year.

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April 27, 2012

Kentucky Bourbon Company Sued for Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

1072868_a_double___.jpgMaker's Mark is known across the country for its ability to make bourbon in Kentucky. On April 6, the Kentucky employment law firm of Miller & Falkner filed a lawsuit against Maker's Mark on behalf of five female employees of the distillery. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, alleges that Maker's Mark broke numerous state and federal laws.

The female workers allege in the complaint that their troubles started before and got worse after answering a survey distributed by Maker's Mark. The survey asked employees to tell if they had ever experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or any other type of discrimination at work. The five women answered positively, and they claim they have been treated negatively since then.

Before the survey, the women say they were subjected to a hostile work environment. This situation can occur in a variety of ways, but ultimately it makes the workers feel uncomfortable enough at work that they may consider quitting. In this case the women claim that indecent exposure occurred, inappropriate birthday cards were sent, and sexual encounters were retold while they were trying to work. This type of behavior from co-workers made Maker's Mark and uncomfortable place to work for them.

The lawsuit also alleges that they were victims of sexual harassment. One type of sexual harassment occurs when someone is subjected to unwanted sexual advances or is propositioned. This is the type of harassment that the women encountered at the distillery. Discrimination based on an employee's gender was also noted by the women. They state that they were denied certain positions and were not promoted on certain occasions simply because they were women.

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April 17, 2012

Kentucky Workers Being Worked Too Hard in Warehouses

Amazon is known worldwide for its competitive pricing and efficient shipping. Based in Seattle, Washington, the company has over 70 warehouses around the world and employs a large number of Kentucky workers in its Campbellsville site. On paper, a job with Amazon looks like a great deal. They offer a decent hourly wage, 401(k) with matching and health insurance for full-time employees.

But working for the internet giant also has a down side, as some Kentucky employees have discovered. While Amazon touts its warehouse safety records as being better than the average for warehouses and even department stores, some of their actual employees may disagree. They say the number of reported injuries is kept lower by Amazon in a couple different ways. Some employees are afraid to report incidents for fear of being written up and potentially losing their job. Others are told to attribute a certain injury to a pre-existing condition even though the current injury was work-related. At least some of the Amazon warehouses have their own medical personnel to treat workplace injuries so the employees are not seen by outside doctors, which might lead to a federal report.

Extreme temperatures are also an issue in the Amazon warehouses, as they are in other facilities. But Amazon seems hesitant to allow workers to take more breaks or to work at a slower pace, even when the temperature gets very high. An Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania was under scrutiny when it was discovered that ambulances were parked outside the building, just waiting to take workers suffering from the heat to the hospital. One Kentucky employee who used to work as a safety official was concerned about the Campbellsville employees when temperatures reached 100 degrees, but he never talked to management about slowing production because he knew it wouldn't happen. To keep employees safe in the heat, he had people walking around offering them Gatorade. Amazon did install air-conditioning in its Lexington warehouse last year, and the rest of their Kentucky facilities should have air-conditioning this year.

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April 5, 2012

Adding Veterans as Protected Class in Workplace Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects several groups of workers from discrimination in the workplace. According to the law, no one should be refused work, fired, demoted, paid less, or otherwise negatively treated because of their race, religion, sex, age, or disability. AMVETS, a group that supports American veterans, would like to add military personnel to this list.

Stewart Hickey, the executive director of AMVETS, thinks that veterans are discriminated against for a couple different reasons. Those currently serving in the military may be passed over for a job because the company is concerned that they will be called back to active duty, leaving the position to be filled in the interim. And employers may be hesitant to hire veterans who have already served because they are afraid the applicants suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.

There is legislation in place that makes it illegal for a company to refuse someone employment because he or she is a veteran. It is called the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and it was enacted in 1994. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel summarizes the act as "a federal law intended to ensure that persons who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, Reserves, National Guard or other "uniformed services:" (1) are not disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of their service; (2) are promptly reemployed in their civilian jobs upon their return from duty; and (3) are not discriminated against in employment based on past, present, or future military service."

Ironically, the federal government has been accused of disobeying this law by firing service members who have been gone on active duty, and rescinding job offers to those serving who did not return from active duty soon enough. In 2011, over 250 cases of the USERRA being violated were brought against the federal government.
So will adding veterans as a protected class under Title VII help the situation? Mr. Hickey can't say for sure, but his hope is that it will. He thinks that giving veterans the protected class status will at least make employers think extra hard before they turn down a vet for a new job or terminate one from an existing position. Even those who may not knowingly discriminate against veterans now may be more apt to hire a veteran if they become protected by workplace discrimination laws.

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March 26, 2012

Can a Potential Employer Ask a Kentucky Job Applicant for Social Media Passwords?

1362248_businessman_with_the_notebook_3.jpgFacebook has become an international phenomenon with millions of users logged in around the globe. Some people have reconnected after years of no communication, and others have forged new relationships through shared friends and interests. As a result of all of this sharing of information, numerous privacy issues have arisen.

One of the latest issues is whether or not employers should have access to employees' Facebook accounts. While a potential employer may see it as an opportunity to get to know an applicant on a more personal level, it could also lead to a potentially illegal situation.

When applying for a job, there are numerous subjects that should not be addressed by an employer. Applicants should not be asked about their age, marital status, number of children, religious background, or ethnicity. Denying someone a position based on any of these factors would most likely constitute employment discrimination, which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore, these topics should not even be brought up by a potential employer.

When an individual uses Facebook, it is under the assumption that the information posted will be viewed by friends and family members, not employers. So the subjects listed above that should not be discussed at a job interview will most likely appear on a Facebook page. Even if this information is not explicitly listed on the person's profile page, it can normally be gleaned from reading posts and viewing photos.

Some prospective employers try to get around the sticky subject of asking for an applicant's user name and password. After the ACLU questioned the Maryland Department of Public Safety's practice of requiring user names and passwords from applicants, the agency changed its policy to requiring the applicant to log into social media sites during the interview. While this gets away from requesting passwords that people should not be asked to share, it still gives the agency access to information that may be covered under Title VII. Other companies have asked applicants to "friend" human resource managers, which also gives them access to the same information that could lead to discriminatory decision-making in the hiring process.

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March 23, 2012

Plumbers Union Settles Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

Unions were created to protect the rights of American workers from those higher up who may not have their best interests in mind. Sometimes, however, the unions themselves can make bad decisions that end up negatively affecting a worker they are supposed to protect.

In 2008, Jon Stokes, who is African-American, was allegedly wrongfully terminated his job as shop steward at a construction site. He was immediately replaced with a white employee who had been on the job for only two months by the local plumber and pipefitters union. Stokes allegedly contacted union leaders regarding his termination being fueled by racism, but an investigation was never done. Because of this, the Division of Civil Rights filed a lawsuit.

An agent for the union said Stokes was terminated because people had complained he was too slow in filling their requests for materials, but the workers who had supposedly complained were never identified. Also, Stokes noted that he was never made aware of any issues before his termination.

Earlier this month, the union agreed to settle this matter with the Civil Rights Division. Several changes will be implemented because of this settlement. Union leaders will be required to attend training regarding civil rights law at the state and federal level. Policies that were previously lacking will be established, including how discrimination complaints should be reported and investigated. Anti-discrimination and harassment policies will be created and given to all union members.

While this settlement does not mean the union admitted any wrongdoing, the director of the Civil Rights Division was satisfied, saying "This is a fair resolution of some troubling allegations...It is vital that all employers strive to create a healthy workplace climate, and that every employee -- from the home office to the job site -- knows and understands the law."

Jon Stokes has filed a personal lawsuit against the union and it is still pending.

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March 18, 2012

Did Religious Discrimination Lead to Wrongful Termination at NASA?

When one hears the name NASA, rocket ships and space exploration come to mind, not religion. But one man is suing a California division of NASA for alleged religious discrimination. David Coppedge was a computer specialist that worked on a NASA mission exploring Saturn and its moons. Once a team lead on the project, he claims he was demoted and eventually terminated because of his religious beliefs. Mr. Coppedge believes in intelligent design, a theory stating that something must have driven evolution.

NASA claims the 15-year project was winding down at the time of his termination and that 264 other employees were also let go at the same time because of budget cuts. Mr. Coppedge claims that his speaking to his co-workers about intelligent design led to his termination. Two other items that may have contributed was his desire to have the holiday party called a "Christmas party" and his backing of a proposed measure to have marriage only pertain to heterosexual couples.

Religion is one of many types of discrimination that are illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs." The unfavorable treatment can be in found in several forms, including refusal to hire an applicant, a negative difference in pay or benefits, being passed over for promotions, or wrongful termination.

Under Title VII, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees' religious beliefs. This may include allowing certain types of dress or appearance required by an individual's religion or not requiring someone to attend functions that go against their beliefs. Unreasonable accommodations are those that would be extremely costly to the employer, would put other employees at risk for harm, or would impede the rights of others.

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March 10, 2012

Paula Deen Sued for Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

Paula Deen continues to be in the news, this time as a defendant in a lawsuit for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. The popular TV show host co-owns a restaurant with her brother, Bubba Hiers, in Savannah. Uncle Bubba's is the name of the restaurant where the alleged harassment took place.

Lisa Jackson, the general manager of Uncle Bubba's for five years, has filed a lawsuit claiming she was sexually harassed and subjected to a hostile work environment while working at the restaurant. The sexual harassment allegedly occurred in several different ways. According to the lawsuit, Mr. Hiers frequently made sexual advances toward Ms. Jackson, watched pornography in their shared office, and said things that were very offensive. Ms. Jackson's claim also states that when Ms. Deen promoted her to general manager of the restaurant, she said she was "going to do something I've never done. I'm going to put a woman in a man's job."

Sexual harassment can take different forms. Sometimes it is sexual in nature, such as when Mr. Hiers allegedly watched pornography in their office and made sexual advances towards Ms. Jackson. It can also occur when derogatory remarks are made about a person's gender in general, which is what Ms. Deen supposedly did when she said she was going to give a man's job to a woman. Ms. Jackson also claims she was paid less than her male counterparts in the restaurant industry. These types of harassment can make an employee feel uncomfortable in the workplace and result in a hostile work environment. In many cases, if the sexual advances are turned down, or if the employee reports the sexual harassment, the harasser may retaliate by wrongfully terminating an employee. Ms. Jackson is not claiming wrongful termination because she voluntarily left the job based on the advice of a physician who said working at the restaurant was detrimental to her mental well-being.

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March 3, 2012

Two Companies Settle Employment Discrimination Lawsuits Regarding Workers with Epilepsy

Epilepsy affects approximately two million Americans to varying degrees. It is a neurological condition that causes people to have seizures. Some can control their epilepsy with medication and avoid having seizures for years, while others continue to have seizures even while medicated. Special caution may need to be taken in certain situations by those who have frequent seizures, but no one should have to give up living or working because of this condition. Two companies recently settled lawsuits that addressed the need to make accommodations for potential and current employees with this particular disability.

A Missouri man applied at Tyson Foods, a meat processing company, for a maintenance position. The man had epilepsy that he had kept under control with medication for 12 years. During this period he had even been employed twice by Tyson. When he applied the third time however, he was denied a position without even being examined by a physician because of a new medical evaluation process put in place by Tyson. The applicant felt he had been discriminated against because of his disability and contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which agreed with him.

The EEOC filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Tyson on the man's behalf in May 2010. Tyson and the EEOC settled the lawsuit, with Tyson agreeing to pay the man $35,000 and promising to make some changes to their policies. Now, if an applicant at Tyson fails a medical assessment, he can have second and third assessments done at his own expense. Tyson will also provide training for those doing the assessments, will post notices regarding discrimination for its employees, and will report to the EEOC regarding its compliance.

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