Walmart employee with Down syndrome battled giant retailer

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Marlo Spaeth (left) was fired from Walmart in July 2015, after working there for almost 16 years. His sister, Amy Jo Stevenson, has since been engaged in a legal battle with the retail giant. She filed a discrimination complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Amy Jo Stevenson

Marlo Spaeth lived for – and loved – his job at a Walmart in Wisconsin.

Then, after nearly 16 years of working there, Walmart abruptly fired her in 2015. Spaeth, who has Down syndrome, was devastated.

Her sister and legal guardian, Amy Jo Stevenson, said Spaeth “quickly turned into a shell” and lost the sense of purpose she got from her job at the Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, where she thrived in interacting with customers and had received high praise. supervisors in performance reviews.

Spaeth, 55, stopped coming on the phone and covered her face when someone wanted to take a picture of her. And when a Walmart commercial was on television, or when a company truck came by, she buried her head in her hands.

” Why me ? Why did they do this to me? Spaeth repeatedly asked his sister.

“It was nothing short of traumatic,” Stevenson said in an interview with CNBC. “It was hard, very hard to watch.”

For the past six years, Stevenson – and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – have been locked in a legal battle on Spaeth’s behalf with Walmart.

Last week, a jury in a federal court in Green Bay, Wisconsin, took just three hours of deliberation to find that Walmart had violated federal law in its treatment of Spaeth. Jurors ruled that the company discriminated against Spaeth when it refused to accommodate her disability by reverting her recently adjusted work hours to a shift she had worked well in for over 15 years.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers and customers.

Historical Jury Prize

The jury ordered the retail giant to pay more than $ 125 million in damages, one of the highest in federal agency history for a single victim.

These damages were reduced by the judge to $ 300,000, the maximum permitted by law.

Walmart is still at risk of being ordered to pay additional fees, as well as Spaeth’s lost wages and interest. The retailer could also be forced by the judge to make changes to the business following the verdict.

Walmart is the country’s largest private employer, with more than 2.3 million workers worldwide. The company achieved sales of nearly $ 560 billion in 2020. Three heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton – Alice Walton, Jim Walton and Rob Walton – were number 10, 11 and 12 on the Forbes list of “Richest Americans” respectively, each with an estimated fortune of around $ 62 billion. dollars each.

Walmart has not said whether it will appeal the verdict in the Spaeth case, but said it is considering its options. “We take the support of all of our associates seriously and for people with disabilities we regularly welcome thousands of people every year,” company spokesman Randy Hargrove said in a statement.

“We tried for over a year to resolve this matter with the EEOC to avoid litigation, but the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable,” he said.

Stevenson, however, said Walmart failed to show remorse or take action that could prevent another employee from facing similar discrimination.

She knows what changes she would like to see in the Manitowoc store and every other Walmart across the country. She wants all Walmart employees and managers to be made aware of their rights and requirements under the ADA, with her sister’s case as an example.

“A note from Marlo Spaeth”

“I imagine a memo from Marlo Spaeth hanging in every Walmart that says, ‘You can’t do that,’” Stevenson said.

Whether Stevenson will get that wish for a memo from Marlo Spaeth remains to be seen.

The EEOC said it plans to seek non-monetary remedies, according to Justin Mulaire, a lawyer for the federal agency who spoke to CNBC. He refused to identify these remedies.

Appeals in past cases have included asking the court to order the reinstatement of an illegally dismissed employee and demanding nationally mandatory training for managers or employees.

Hargrove said Walmart had not changed its company policies, but said executives “continually review, revise or improve based on changes in the law.” He declined to say whether Walmart would offer Spaeth’s work, saying the case was still ongoing.

The trial led to a series of difficult times for Spaeth and Stevenson.

Stevenson and Spaeth endured hours of questioning from Walmart lawyers during the fight, which began when the EEOC found the women’s claims to be valid and sued Walmart.

They mourned the death of their mother, Sandra Barnes, who had helped Spaeth apply for the first job at Walmart and who was a champion of people with intellectual disabilities.

And Walmart forced Spaeth through hours of psychological exams, which left her heartbroken and inconsolably sobbing in the passenger seat of a car.

In a statement, Hargrove said the assessments conducted by both sides “are a common part of litigation to address allegations like those raised in this case, and we have tried to be respectful to Ms Spaeth in her assessment.”

Jasmine Harris, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in anti-discrimination legislation, said retailers often place employees with disabilities in the front of the store. They present them in marketing materials and social responsibility reports.

With the verdict, however, Harris said jurors sent a clear message to those employers: Spaeth – and so many other people with disabilities – are not business or charity props, but qualified job applicants. and contributing employees.

Employee, then dismissed

Spaeth began working in 1999 as a sales associate at the Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, a small town in eastern Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Four days a week, for nearly 16 years, Spaeth took the bus to the store where she tidied up aisles, folded towels, processed returns and worshiped customers.

Spaeth’s shift for the vast majority of his tenure at Walmart was from noon to 4 p.m. When the day was over, she took the bus home, in time for an early dinner.

But in November 2014, Spaeth’s hours changed when the Walmart store began using a computerized scheduling system designed to match staff levels with customer traffic, court records show.

Spaeth’s schedule was changed from 1:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., according to the lawsuit.

Spaeth struggled to adjust to the change. Stevenson has said in court documents and interviews that Spaeth felt sick, overheated and stressed by the disrupted schedule.

Dr David Smith, founder of the Down Syndrome Clinic of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, testified in court that Spaeth’s response reflected the challenges of many people with Down syndrome, who struggle with daily routine changes and other transitions.

Spaeth and her sister have repeatedly asked supervisors to reinstate her old schedule. But Walmart refused, according to the lawsuit.

Spaeth was leaving the store earlier on some days, fearing to miss the bus or his dinner at home.

Walmart began counting these days as “incomplete shifts,” which were booked as an absence, instead of manager-approved early departures as they had been in the past, according to court records.

Eventually, the store took disciplinary action against Spaeth, firing her in July 2015 for excessive absenteeism.

Even after her sister was fired, Stevenson said she believed the situation could be fixed.

She scheduled a meeting with the store supervisors, bringing a printed copy of the ADA requirements and a copy of Spaeth’s termination documents, in which a box was checked indicating she was re-enlistable.

EEOC takes the case

When Walmart executives said no again, Stevenson filed a complaint with the EEOC and then received a letter saying the agency would take the matter into its own hands.

In their lawsuit, lawyers for the EEOC said that under the ADA, if Walmart changed Spaeth’s hours, it would be reasonable accommodation for her disability and would not be a burden on Walmart or the store where she was. was working. This store is open 24 hours a day and has over 300 employees.

Lawyers for the EEOC noted that in depositions, Walmart supervisors said other salespeople would be happy to take the overtime hours that would open up if Spaeth got his old schedule.

They also noted that by donating the hours to a less experienced associate, Walmart could actually save money. As a result of his tenure at the store, Spaeth’s salary had risen to $ 12.50 an hour, more than what a starting worker would be paid.

But Walmart lawyers argued that Spaeth was not a qualified disabled person because she was unable to come to work or stay at work reliably.

Walmart and Stevenson clashed over additional psychological exams, after Spaeth was upset by a previous session.

A Walmart lawyer asked Stevenson what she would do if she had to choose between a closer look at her sister or dismissing the case.

Stevenson ultimately decided to allow two more hours of exams for his sister.

“They made it as difficult as possible to keep the deal going,” Stevenson said. “And it was just mean. It was mean.”

Marlo Spaeth (left) “turned into a shell” when she was fired from her job at Walmart, her sister Amy Jo Stevenson said. She wouldn’t come on the phone or have her picture taken.

Source: Amy Jo Stevenson

“She was crying and I was crying”

Stevenson said money cannot repair the damage from Walmart’s actions and cannot return her sister’s sense of identity stripped.

“She wore the job title with honor,” Stevenson said. “I believe in her mind, the store just wouldn’t work without her.”

In performance reviews, included in the trial record, Walmart supervisors also noted Spaeth’s dedication to the job. They gave him positive marks and salary increases.

On the day Spaeth was fired, a Walmart training coordinator named Debbie Moss escorted her out of the store and then told EEOC lawyers that she herself started crying as Spaeth was reluctant to hand over. his Walmart employee vest.

“She said she didn’t understand, and she was crying and I was crying,” Moss said in a deposition.

“And I gave her a hug. And I said ‘I know.'”

– CNBC journalist Dan Mangan contributed to this report.

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