By now, many people in the dwarfism community have read or heard about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed against Starbucks. The complaint, filed on behalf of a woman with dwarfism, accuses Starbucks of discrimination based upon disability. According to the complaint, a woman with dwarfism was fired by Starbucks on the same day she requested a simple accommodation, a stool, in order to perform the duties of her job. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers provide a reasonable accommodation so long as the accommodation does not create an undue hardship. Often times an undue hardship translates to dollars. For example, it would be an undue hardship for a company to invest half of its operating budget into an accommodation. The company would probably go bankrupt. Whether its a multi-billion dollar corporation or an independent coffee shop, a stool doesn't cost much money. Starbucks justifies the firing by claiming that a stool would have created an unsafe environment for the dwarf who was fired and for other employees. Many posters on comment boards agree with the Starbucks justification, writing that behind the counter of a coffee bar, where people are racing back and forth with hot drinks, is no place for a dwarf.
Reports on the complaint and some of the public comments remind me of a U.S. Supreme Court Case from 2002, Eschazabal vs. Chevron. In that case, a maintenance worker who had Hepatitis was fired. Chevron explained that working around chemicals posed a risk to someone with Hepatitis. Chevron based its defense upon an EEOC regulation that "allows businesses to refuse to hire a worker if that worker would 'pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals' or of the individual." The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Chevron.
Before the Chevron case reached the Supreme Court, an Appeals Court found in favor of Echazabal, ruling that Chevron's action reflected paternalism. The Starbucks case seems to pulse paternalism also. Scalding hot drinks pose a threat to everyone, whether you a dwarf or are typical height. Who is Starbucks to decide a dwarf can't work in that environment because of safety. Granted the dwarf may be the only one in need of a stool to perform duties of the job, but a stool really pose more of a risk than the other equipment in a standard Starbucks Coffee Shop.
When searching around the internet, I found an interesting post about the case on a site called "The Stir." In a story named, "Starbucks Refuses to Let Dwarf Employee Use a Step Stool," the writer wrote, "If she can't work at Starbucks, that also eliminates 90 percent of the jobs in the service industry, which leaves her where? Unemployed?" That is a scary thought. If Starbucks and the employee aren't able to reach a resolution, and if the courts don't find in favor of the person who brought the complaint, what does this means for every other person of short stature in the service industry who may request a stool or another physical accommodation.
I am disappointed not just because the Starbucks employee was fired, but also because, in the two year span between the time the employee was fired and that the EEOC filed the complaint, the parties were not able to resolve the dispute. Who knows what happened in the intervening time. I know no more about the case than what has been reported in the media. There must be circumstances about which the public is not aware.
Despite this case, I've heard that Starbucks is a decent company on diversity and disability issues. My hope is that this EEOC will provide Starbucks an opportunity to build on its diversity and disability efforts, specifically within the dwarfism community. It would be great if this case ended, not with one side winning and the other losing, but with a collaboration between Starbucks and dwarfism community around corporation initiatives that will raise awareness about dwarfism, expand workplace accommodations for all people with disabilities, and increase employment opportunities for people with dwarfism in the workforce.