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Deaf employee sues UPS

Michael MacDonald says UPS violated federal law by failing to provide him with a sign-language interpreter when he needs one.

Julie Foster has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a deaf employee at UPS, Michael MacDonald.
Julie Foster has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a deaf employee at UPS, Michael MacDonald.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

AS A deaf employee, Michael MacDonald can do his work as a package handler at the United Parcel Service facility at Philadelphia International Airport without assistance.

But when it comes to employee meetings and to understanding certain things - such as safety and emergency procedures, company policies and procedures, and some other workplace communications - he needs an American Sign Language interpreter.

Federal law - the Americans with Disabilities Act - "requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities so that they can enjoy equal employment opportunities and participate fully in the workplace," said Julie Foster, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which filed a lawsuit on MacDonald's behalf.

The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, contends UPS has repeatedly failed to provide MacDonald with an ASL interpreter when he needs one and has failed to provide other reasonable accommodations so he can effectively communicate in the workplace.

As a result, MacDonald has faced "stigmatization, embarrassment, and anxiety over workplace safety," the lawsuit says.

MacDonald, 37, of South Philadelphia, was born deaf. His primary language is ASL, not English.

In an interview at the Public Interest Law Center's Center City office last week, MacDonald explained that he can do his daily tasks without an interpreter, but when there is an employee meeting, he needs an interpreter.

"No meeting, I don't need an interpreter, I can do my job," MacDonald said through the assistance of ASL interpreter Joy Harris of the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre.

"But when there's a meeting, I need an interpreter, period, end of story. The communication is vital. If I'm not privy to this communication and this information, then I can't do my job."

What constitutes "reasonable accommodations" depends on the needs of the person with the disability and the resources of the company, said Foster, who launched the Disability Employment Discrimination Project at the Public Interest Law Center.

"The upper limit on providing reasonable accommodations is called the undue burden," she said. That's when you look at "the size of the company, how much money it has, how many employees it has to figure out, well, in balance, is this reasonable? Does it achieve equality in the workplace? Is it excessive relative to the resources of the company?"

Foster and MacDonald contend that UPS - which last year had $58 billion in revenues and $35 billion in assets - has the resources to provide MacDonald with an ASL interpreter when he needs one without it being an undue burden to the company.

MacDonald, who began working at UPS in September 2014, says pre-shift meetings for his area don't happen daily.

Foster noted the pre-shift meetings can be "sporadic." "Over the summer, he went months without one, and then this week, there's been one every day," she said, according to her discussions with MacDonald.

If the meeting is less than five minutes, the gist of it can be communicated through a short written note or text message, MacDonald said. But if it's longer than five minutes, he said he would need an interpreter "because it's just too complicated."

MacDonald doesn't fluently read or write English. Asked why MacDonald couldn't learn to read English better, Foster explained that a major part of learning a language is to hear it, which MacDonald can't do.

UPS spokesman Glenn Zaccara, at the company's Atlanta headquarters, responded in an email to MacDonald's lawsuit: "As an equal opportunity employer, we highly value all of our employees. UPS has provided this employee reasonable accommodation, in accordance with our policies." Zaccara would not be more specific, saying he "can't provide additional comment on pending litigation."

According to the lawsuit, several of MacDonald's supervisors have refused to communicate with him through short written notes or text messages.

Once, in August, MacDonald saw an open package at work with "unknown contents spilling out into the worksite," the suit says. It says he tried to communicate that to a supervisor by showing him text messages on his phone, but the supervisor ignored him.

MacDonald then tried to get the man's attention by waving his arms, but was again ignored. He then tapped the supervisor on the shoulder, but the man walked away, the lawsuit says.

The suit contends UPS has violated the ADA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

It also notes UPS had settled two similar prior lawsuits regarding hearing-disabled employees.

In "settlements of prior lawsuits in 2003 and 2011, UPS had agreed to provide ASL interpreters for deaf employees and applicants to interview for positions, during facility tours, training sessions, at company meetings, and to communicate company policies and information," MacDonald's lawsuit says.

Those cases arose out of California. The earlier settlement was a national class-action case.

MacDonald's suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It also seeks for UPS to provide him with an ASL interpreter or other reasonable accommodations when needed, to conduct mandatory training for all supervisors and human-resources staff at the airport facility and to conduct mandatory sensitivity training for all staff at the airport.

"I want to do my best," MacDonald said.

"Without communication, problems occur. Communication is key."

Added MacDonald: "I'm not just doing this to fight for myself. I'm doing this to fight for me, my rights, as well as my other deaf colleagues and counterparts there, to fight for them."

On Twitter: @julieshawphilly