The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission



EEOC Says Airline Failed to Provide Reasonable Accommodations for Disabled Workers

SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today sued Chicago-based global air carrier United Airlines for discriminating against a class of employees with disabilities by failing to provide job transfers to vacant positions, despite their qualifications, as a reasonable accommodation.

Lead class member Joe Boswell worked as an airline mechanic for United at the San Francisco Airport for over a decade before being diagnosed with a brain tumor, causing him to take leave and seek medical treatment. When Boswell returned to work at United, he could not be accommodated in his position as a mechanic, so he applied for a number of vacant positions for which he was qualified.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  Under the statute, reasonable accommodations specifically include reassignment to a vacant position. However, instead of providing such an accommodation to Boswell, the EEOC says United violated the ADA by rejecting him for all the positions he had applied for, even though he was qualified for those jobs. Boswell was eventually placed on extended, involuntary leave by United until he retired late last year.

“The EEOC is focused on eliminating widespread disability discrimination in employment wherever we find it,” said EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru.  “Employers in every industry should know that their failure to comply with the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement will have legal consequences.”

Boswell said, “It made me feel useless to be rejected for job after job when I knew I was qualified to do the work I was applying for. United made it clear that they didn’t want to deal with me after I became disabled. I wanted to work, but they didn’t care.”

The EEOC says in the litigation that all of the class members shared similar experiences as Boswell: they became disabled during their employment with United, could not be accommodated in their current position, and were rejected by United for a vacant position for which they qualified. Other claimants were food service workers, airplane maintenance workers, ramp workers, flight attendants, and customer service representatives.

“We anticipate that numerous employees at United locations nationwide may have a claim in this systemic case,” said EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William Tamayo. “The ADA clearly requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation when an employee can no longer perform the original job because of a disability. This requires placing disabled employees in vacant positions for which they qualify, rather than forcing them to go through an application process similar to an external applicant who never worked at the company.”

The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement (EEOC v. United Airlines, Civil No. 09-2469-PJH). The suit seeks monetary damages on behalf of the affected class of employees, a court order to require the airline to change its policies to comply with the ADA, and ensuring the class members are reassigned to work in vacant jobs for which they are qualified.

EEOC San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado noted, “The EEOC investigation found that Boswell’s treatment was the rule, not the exception, at United Airlines. Employees with disabilities were placed on long-term leaves of absence and/or terminated despite the fact that they were willing, qualified and able to work. Such actions ignore the language and spirit of the ADA. Employees with disabilities can remain productive members of the work force, especially if employers fully comply with their duty under the law to provide reasonable accommodations.”

According to the company web site, United Airlines has almost 50,000 employees in every U.S. state and in many countries around the world. The air carrier operates air travel hubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and Washington, D.C. United is one of the largest international carriers based in the United States.

During Fiscal Year 2008, disability discrimination charge filings with the EEOC nationwide rose to 19,453 -- an increase of 10 percent from the prior fiscal year and the highest level in 14 years.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at

This page was last modified on June 4, 2009.

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