Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Woman with Asperger's sues McDonalds over disability discrimination

From the San Francisco Chronicle on July 23:

An autistic woman who had worked at the McDonald's in downtown Berkeley for 21 years showed up at her job in March, after a change in ownership, and was told that she and two other disabled workers were no longer needed, she says.

"I was devastated ... then I was really just angry," Lisa Craib said after filing a discrimination complaint July 22 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After she was fired, the complaint said, the fast-food restaurant at Shattuck and University avenues posted a sign: "Help Wanted - Equal Opportunity Employer."

Craib's claim was filed under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which has its 18th anniversary on July 26. Under the law, "if someone's a qualified individual with a disability, they have to be treated equally alongside other people ... and they're entitled to reasonable accommodations," noted Craib's attorney, Claudia Center of the Legal Aid Society's Employment Law Center in San Francisco.

The food outlet's new owner, Nick Vergis, said he hadn't received a formal notice of the complaint but has a strict policy against discrimination.

"I comply with all applicable laws - including the Americans With Disabilities Act - and continually strive to maintain an environment in which everyone feels valued and accepted," Vergis said in a statement released by McDonald's.

Craib, 43, has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that typically causes people to have trouble interacting with others and to become preoccupied with narrow topics.

She worked the morning shift at the McDonald's outlet for more than two decades, preparing salads, busing tables and cleaning up, her lawyers said. They said she became such a fixture that two regular customers called her "Miss McDonald's." A job coach, funded by the state under the disability law, visited once or twice a week to see how she was doing, Center said.

According to the discrimination complaint, Craib came to work a day or two after Vergis bought the downtown franchise and was told by her supervisor, "You're no longer part of the team." The other two developmentally disabled employees were also dismissed but at least some of the nondisabled staff kept their jobs, Center said.

"It's somewhat uncommon, fortunately, that such a dramatic and seemingly blatant situation of discrimination occurs," the attorney said. But she said disabled Americans have a high unemployment rate and have a particularly hard time getting hired.

The claim filed July 22 asks the federal agency to make a finding of discrimination, which would clear the way for a damage suit, Center said.