April 9, 2003
Trial begins in discrimination suit by deaf UPS employees
From: Atlanta Journal Constitution, GA - Apr 9, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO -- When Eric Bates was promoted from working the loading docks to becoming a delivery driver at UPS, he suspected his lawsuit was much of the reason.
Bates, who is 30 and nearly deaf, claimed the nation's fourth-largest private employer rampantly discriminates against the hearing impaired in violation of federal laws. Lawyers for the firm deny the allegations.
Bates obtained a U.S. Department of Transportation certification to drive a delivery truck over 10,000 pounds. But UPS, he said, gave him the run-around until he filed suit.
"They told me to wait and they ignored me," Bates said.
His case has mushroomed into class-action litigation. On Tuesday, a trial began for more than 900 current and former employees nationwide claiming they were either passed over for promotions or given inadequate training and safety instructions -- all because they were hearing impaired.
"Every morning, when I wake up and put on my brown uniform, I'm proud that I can drive because I thought that it might never happen," Bates said in an interview via a sign-language interpreter.
UPS attorney Christopher Martin said the plaintiffs' allegations are "hyperbole" and that the judge should not infer accusations by individuals as being representative of company policy.
There is no jury in the case, which is expected to last months and includes a sign-language interpreter capturing the trial for deaf plaintiffs in attendance.
"There may have been an instance when something wasn't perfect. That's going to happen in a big company," Martin said of Atlanta-based UPS, which employs 320,000 workers nationwide.
Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates lawyer Larry Paradis said hearing-impaired UPS employees are "systematically marginalized." He said they are not provided sign-language interpreters during emergency and workplace training, and are rarely promoted to delivery driving or supervisory roles.
Plaintiffs lawyers also are attacking UPS's policy of denying hearing-impaired workers jobs operating delivery trucks weighing under 10,000 pounds.
Federal rules demand that trucks exceeding 10,000 pounds be staffed by those meeting certain vision and hearing requirements, and demands those drivers become certified. But the government leaves it up to companies to decide which drivers are qualified to operate lighter vehicles.
Martin told the judge the company's policy is "consistent with business necessities and therefore not unlawful." He said the "bread and butter of UPS is prompt and efficient service."
The U.S. Postal Service and Federal Express allow some deaf drivers to operate delivery vehicles under 10,000 pounds.
© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution