Today’s News & Commentary — July 19, 2021

A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin returned a verdict of over $125 million against Walmart in the case of a woman with Down syndrome who the retailer failed to accommodate and then fired, the New York Times reports. The action was brought by the E.E.O.C. The jury awarded $125 million in punitive damages and $150,000 in compensatory damages, well-exceeding the compensatory and punitive damages cap of $300,000 for employers with over 500 employees. Marlo Spaeth had worked at Walmart since 1999 when, in 2014, the company adopted a computerized scheduling system and abruptly changed her hours. With her routine suddenly changed, she consistently worried about missing her bus and dinner and felt sick. She repeatedly asked her manager for her old schedule to no avail, despite the fact that the store was open 24/7 and employed over 300 people. She was disciplined for tardiness and absenteeism, then fired. Walmart, America’s largest private employer, refused to rehire her. The jury found that Walmart refused to reasonably accommodate Spaeth, fired her because of her disability, and refused to rehire her because of her disability, all in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores East LP, E.D. Wis., No. 1:17-cv-00070.

A Wisconsin community is reeling after a private equity firm acquired a local manufacturing company, The Guardian reports. OpenGate Capital acquired Hufcor, a 120-year-old family-owned company in Janesville, four years ago and announced this spring that it would close the plant where 166 workers made accordion-style room dividers, moving operations to Mexico. Many of the workers had been there for decades. “Hufcor has been in this community 120 years. OpenGate really didn’t have a stake in the community,” said the local’s president Tom Casey, who has worked at the plant for 31 years and whose mother worked there for 38 years. The workers and the IUE-CWA called on lawmakers to take action, protested, and took out a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, OpenGate’s home paper. Professor Rosemary Blatt, an expert on private equity’s impact on workers, noted that OpenGate’s tactics were straight out of the private equity playbook that has harmed communities across the country.

            Finally, an investigation out last week from ProPublica reveals the failures of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), one of the nation’s largest employers, and OSHA to keep workers safe during the pandemic. USPS workers filed over 1,000 complaints to OSHA about pandemic-related hazards—and OSHA responded by filing four violations, none of which required USPS to pay penalties or change practices. OSHA has 20 USPS cases that remain open. At least 197 USPS workers have died from COVID. The investigation comes after the Department of Labor’s inspector general issued a report about OSHA’s pandemic failures, especially weaknesses in its “remote inspections.” At USPS facilities, OSHA’s absence and USPS’s failure to accurately track cases and inform workers was deadly. Mary Ellen Moore, a grandmother who had worked at the St. Paul USPS facility for 35 years, died from COVID after she was not informed about confirmed cases and possible exposures at her worksite, which the state health department has linked to numerous clusters. Even as Moore was struggling to breathe in her hospital bed, her daughter says that she was texting management about her illness and was worried about the division of her leave time. No COVID cases appeared in management’s reports to union officials from that time.

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