HMSA settles Hilo discrimination case

Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state’s largest health insurance company, has agreed to pay $180,000 and provide injunctive relief to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency announced Tuesday.

According to the order signed by U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi in Honolulu, the lion’s share of the settlement, $150,000, will be divided between claimants Marline Reyes, Sharolyn Burrell and Jade Pacheco, who worked as customer relations representatives at HMSA’s call center in Hilo.

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EEOC’s lawsuit claimed HMSA violated federal law when it decided not to allow intermittent leave as a possible accommodation for employees with disabilities in its customer relations department.

HMSA also failed to engage in the interactive process with its employees to determine if there were other accommodations available for them.

Those practices forced employees to either work without an accommodation or resign. Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC said.

The EEOC filed the federal civil lawsuit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process, the agency said.

The remaining $30,000 of the judgment will be deposited into a class fund for any HMSA employees or former employees who have claims similar to those of Reyes, Burrell and Pacheco. If none can be identified, some or all of the class fund can be distributed to a disability-related charity suggested by HMSA upon approval of the EEOC.

In addition to monetary relief, the three-year consent decree includes injunctive relief aimed at preventing future disability discrimination. HMSA has agreed to review and revise its policies and procedures regarding ADA compliance and provide training in employment discrimination law. The health insurance company also has agreed to have a centralized unit to maintain and track all disability accommodation requests and disability discrimination complaints, and ensure appropriate record keeping, reporting and monitoring.

“We commend Hawaii Medical Service Association for their commitment to the ADA and for agreeing to comprehensive injunctive remedies that intend to prevent future disability discrimination,” said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District, which includes Hawaii. “We encourage other employers to follow suit and review their disability accommodation policies and practices to ensure they are in compliance with federal law.”

“The EEOC is committed to preventing and correcting disability discrimination in the workplace. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, barring any undue hardship,” Glory Gervacio Saure, director of EEOC’s Honolulu office, said. “We’ve actually seen cases like this often, and I think it’s because employers are unaware of policies in place that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There’s the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which also kicks in when FMLA ends. So we do see, quite often, these leave policy cases here in Hawaii.”

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Messages by the Tribune-Herald to an HMSA spokeswoman weren’t replied to by deadline Tuesday.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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