Walmart staff with Down syndrome battled the large retailer
Marlo Spaeth (left) was fired from Walmart in July 2015 after working there for nearly 16 years. Her sister Amy Jo Stevenson has since been in litigation with the retail giant. She filed a discrimination complaint with the US Equal Opportunities Commission.
Amy Jo Stevenson
Marlo Spaeth lived for – and loved – her job at a Walmart in Wisconsin.
Then, after nearly 16 years there, Walmart abruptly fired her in 2015. Spaeth, who has Down syndrome, was devastated.
Her sister and legal guardian, Amy Jo Stevenson, said Spaeth was quick to “shrink back to a clam” and lost the sense of purpose she got from working at the Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, where she thrives and receives praise with customers got from supervisors in performance reviews.
Spaeth, 55, stopped answering the phone and covered her face when someone wanted to take a photo of her. And when a Walmart commercial was on TV or a company car drove by, she buried her head in her hands.
“Why me? Why did you do this to me?” Her sister kept asking late.
“It was downright traumatic,” Stevenson said in an interview with CNBC. “It was hard, very hard to watch.”
For the past six years, Stevenson – and the U.S. Equal Opportunities Commission – have been embroiled in a lawsuit on behalf of Spaeth with Walmart.
It took a jury in federal court in Green Bay, Wisconsin just three hours of deliberation last week to determine that Walmart had violated federal law in its treatment of Spaeth. The jury found that the company had discriminated against Spaeth when it refused to accommodate her disability by postponing her recently adjusted hours to a shift where she had performed well for more than 15 years.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for employees and customers.
Historical jury award
The jury called on 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 threatened with the possibility of paying additional fees as well as Spaeth’s wages and interest losses. The judge’s judgment could also force the retailer to make changes in the company.
Walmart is the country’s largest private employer with more than 2.3 million employees worldwide. The company had sales of nearly $ 560 billion in 2020. Three heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton – Alice Walton, Jim Walton, and Rob Walton – were numbers 10, 11, and 12 respectively on Forbes’ “Richest Americans” list, each with a fortune worth about 62 each Billion dollars.
Walmart has not said whether it will appeal the verdict in Spaeth’s case, but said it is reviewing its options. “We take the support of all of our employees seriously and routinely take in thousands of people with disabilities each year,” said company spokesman Randy Hargrove in a statement.
“We tried to resolve this matter with the EEOC for over a year to avoid litigation, but the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable,” he said.
However, Stevenson said Walmart has shown no remorse or taken steps that might discourage another employee from facing similar discrimination.
She knows what changes she would like to see in the Manitowoc store and in every other Walmart around the country. She wants all Walmart employees and managers to be informed of their rights and requirements under the ADA, using her sister’s own case as an example.
“A memo by Marlo Spaeth”
“I imagine there is a memo from Marlo Spaeth in every Walmart that says, ‘You can’t do this,'” said Stevenson.
It remains to be seen whether Stevenson will get the request for a Marlo Spaeth memo.
According to Justin Mulaire, a federal attorney who spoke to CNBC, the EEOC said it plans to seek non-monetary appeals. He declined to identify these agents.
Remedial measures in past cases have included asking the court to order the reinstatement of an illegally dismissed employee and compulsory nationwide training for managers or employees.
Hargrove said Walmart had not changed its company policies, but said that executives “are constantly reviewing, revising or improving based on changes in the law”. He declined to comment on whether Walmart will return Spaeth’s job, saying the case is still active.
The lawsuit created a number of difficult moments for Spaeth and Stevenson.
Stevenson and Spaeth endured hours of questions from Walmart’s attorneys during the battle, which began when the EEOC found the women’s claims were valid and sued Walmart.
They mourned their mother, Sandra Barnes, who helped Spaeth apply for the Walmart job for the first time and who stood up for people with developmental disabilities.
And Walmart forced Spaeth to do hours of psychological exams, which left her despondent and inconsolable sobbing in the passenger seat of a car.
In a statement, Hargrove said bilateral evaluations “are a common part of litigation to handle allegations like those raised in this case, and we have tried to treat Ms. Spaeth with respect during her evaluation.”
Jasmine Harris, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in anti-discrimination law, said retailers often put disabled employees outside the store. You will feature them in marketing materials and social responsibility reports.
With the verdict, however, Harris said the jury was sending a clear message to these employers: Spaeth – and so many others with disabilities – are not charity cases or props, but rather qualified job candidates and contributors.
Employed, then fired
Spaeth began in 1999 as a sales representative at the Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, a small town in eastern Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Four days a week, for almost 16 years, Spaeth took the bus to the store, where she tidied up aisles, folded towels, processed returns and adored customers.
Spaeth’s shift for the vast majority of her tenure at Walmart ran from noon to 4 p.m. When she finished, she took the bus back home in time for an early dinner.
But Spaeth’s opening hours changed in November 2014 when the Walmart store deployed a computerized planning system that court records said was supposed to adjust staffing levels to reflect customer traffic.
Spaeth’s schedule was changed to 1:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., according to the lawsuit.
Spaeth struggled to adapt to the change. Stevenson said in court documents and interviews that Spaeth felt sick, overheated, and stressed by the disrupted schedule.
Dr. David Smith, founder of Wisconsin’s Down Syndrome Clinic in Milwaukee, testified in court that Spaeth’s response reflected the challenges many people with Down syndrome face who struggle with changes in daily routine and other transitions.
Spaeth and her sister repeatedly asked their superiors to restore their old schedule. But Walmart refused, according to the lawsuit.
Spaeth was leaving early on certain days because she was afraid she would miss the bus or her dinner at home.
Walmart began counting those days as “incomplete shifts” booked as absenteeism rather than manager-approved early departures as was the case in court records.
Eventually the business took disciplinary action against Spaeth and fired her for excessive absenteeism in July 2015.
Even after her sister was released, Stevenson said she believed the situation could be resolved.
She set up a meeting with the store managers, brought a printout of the ADA requirements and a copy of Spaeth’s termination papers with a box ticked that said she could be reinstated.
EEOC takes over the case
When Walmart executives said no again, Stevenson filed a complaint with the EEOC and later received a letter saying the agency would take the case.
In her lawsuit, EEOC attorneys said that changing Spaeth’s working hours under the ADA would be a reasonable accommodation for her disability and would not put a strain on Walmart or the business she worked in. The store is open 24 hours a day and employs more than 300 people.
EEOC attorneys noted that Walmart’s supervisors had stated in their testimony that other sales reps would like to take up the extra hours that would result if Spaeth were given her old schedule.
They also found that Walmart actually saved money by making the hours available to a less experienced employee. Because of her job in the store, Spaeth’s wages had risen to $ 12.50 an hour, more than what a young professional would make.
However, Walmart’s attorneys argued that Spaeth was not a qualified person with a disability due to the inability to get or stay to work on a reliable basis.
Walmart and Stevenson quarreled over additional psychological tests after Spaeth was plagued by an earlier session.
A Walmart attorney asked Stevenson what she would do if she had to decide whether her sister would be investigated further or the case would be dismissed.
Stevenson finally decided to give her sister two more hours of exams.
“They made it as difficult as possible to keep the case going,” said Stevenson. “And it was just mean. It was mean.”
Marlo Spaeth (left) “stepped back in a shell” when she was fired from her job at Walmart, said her sister Amy Jo Stevenson. She didn’t get to the phone or have her picture taken.
Source: Amy Jo Stevenson
“She cried and I cried”
Stevenson said money couldn’t repair the damage done by Walmart’s actions or restore her sister’s sense of identity.
“She held the job title with honor,” said Stevenson. “I think in her head the place just wouldn’t work without her.”
In performance reviews included in the lawsuit’s case file, Walmart supervisors also noted Spaeth’s commitment to the job. They gave her positive grades and raises.
On the day Spaeth was fired, a Walmart training coordinator named Debbie Moss escorted her out of the store and later told EEOC lawyers that she herself started crying when Spaeth was reluctant to hand in her Walmart staff vest.
“She said she didn’t understand and she was crying and I was crying,” Moss said in a statement.
“And I hugged her. And I said ‘I know’.”
– CNBC reporter Dan Mangan contributed to this report.