Deaf UPS Employees Allege Rampant Discrimination Nationwide

AP Legal Affairs Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Eric Bates finally got his promotion to delivery driver with United Parcel Service Inc., and he’s proud of it.

It took Bates, who is 30 and nearly deaf, five years to make his way out of the Sunnyvale loading docks. He was promoted, he says, thanks to a lawsuit he filed claiming that the nation’s fourth-largest private employer rampantly discriminates against the hearing impaired in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.

His case mushroomed into class-action litigation and on Tuesday a trial began for more than 900 current and former employees nationwide claiming they were either passed over for promotions or were 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,” the Fremont man said in an interview via a sign-language interpreter.

Lawyers for the Atlanta-based package delivery company deny that UPS discriminates against those with hearing disabilities.

“When the court has heard all the evidence, the court will conclude there is no pattern or practice of discrimination,” UPS attorney Christopher Martin told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson.

There is no jury in the case, which is predicted to last months and includes a sign-language interpreter capturing the trial for deaf plaintiffs in attendance.

Martin said the plaintiffs’ allegations are “hyperbole” and the judge should not infer accusations by individuals as being representative of company policy.

“There may have been an instance when something wasn’t perfect. That’s going to happen in a big company,” Martin said of UPS, which employs 320,000 workers nationwide.

Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates lawyer Larry Paradis told the judge that hearing-impaired UPS employees are “systematically marginalized.” He said they are not provided adequate emergency and workplace training, and are rarely promoted to delivery drivers or supervisory roles.

He reduced the case to one proposition: “The question this court will decide is whether deaf people have a right to the American dream.”

Babaranti Oloyede, a deaf loader with 12 years of service at a UPS Oakland facility, alleges that during the 2001 anthrax scare he was not provided a sign-language interpreter when the company trained employees about what to do if they discovered a package with white powder.

“The thing is I didn’t know how to identify anthrax,” Oloyede said in an interview using a sign language interpreter. “It was frightening.”

Former UPS loader Jeremy Daffern, who is deaf, said he quit his Sacramento job after he says he was demoted from driving so-called “tug” vehicles, golf cart-like cars that transport irregular-sized packages within the loading docks. He maintains he was qualified and his demotion was based on discrimination.

“A supervisor came to me and told me that I can’t drive tugs because I am a safety hazard to others,” he said in a telephone interview through the California relay operator. “But I never had a problem. I never had an accident.”

Martin, the UPS attorney, said Daffern never alleged discrimination during his five years of employment.

“The first time we had any complaint about Mr. Daffern is after he quit and joined this case,” Martin told the judge.

Plaintiffs lawyers are also attacking UPS’ policy of denying hearing-impaired workers jobs operating delivery trucks weighing under 10,000 pounds.

The U.S. Department of Transportation demands that trucks exceeding 10,000 pounds be staffed by those meeting certain vision and hearing requirements, and demands those drivers become DOT 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.

“We do have some that drive vehicles,” Federal Express spokeswoman Kristin Krause said.

Bates, the lead plaintiff in the case who has limited hearing with a hearing aide, obtained DOT 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.

The case is Bates v. UPS, 99-2216.