Federal agency sues Salvation Army over rejection of disabled applicant for Wasilla store

A federal agency is accusing the Salvation Army of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying the nonprofit group refused to hire a man with an intellectual disability for an entry-level job at its Wasilla thrift store.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit Monday against the Salvation Army after attempts to reach a settlement failed, according to a statement from the EEOC's Seattle office.

The commission said that the applicant, who had finished high school as well as a subsequent job-readiness program, had also completed three internships and held a part-time job at a Wasilla church. He then applied in the spring of 2014 for an entry-level position as a Salvation Army donation attendant, a position that involved accepting and sorting goods brought to the store.

"Based on the strength of his initial job interview, EEOC found that the Salvation Army store manager actually recommended hiring the applicant," commission officials wrote. "However, the Salvation Army requested a highly unusual second interview, and EEOC charges that the organization ultimately rejected this applicant due to stereotypes about his ability to interact with the public."

The man and his family declined a request to discuss the lawsuit.

May Che, a senior EEOC trial attorney handling the lawsuit, said Tuesday that the applicant had been accompanied by a job coach when he interviewed with the Wasilla store's manager, who was both willing and able to hire him.

"She really liked him; she recommended him for hiring," Che said. "She didn't generally have any approval process for that — she was able to hire entry-level positions without any approval from anyone higher up."

The commission found that a business manager at the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center then intervened to have the applicant re-interviewed using different questions specifically pertaining to his disability — a violation of the disabilities act, the EEOC said.

"During this second interview, (the business manager) asked some questions that really got to what we considered these paternalistic fears and concerns about (the applicant's) ability to perform the job — that he might be bullied, that he might not be able to handle the job," Che said.

The applicant had no competition when he was rejected by the Salvation Army, according to the commission.

"A few weeks later, another candidate who did not have a disability applied and he got the job," Che said.

Salvation Army Maj. Paul Chouinard, a spokesman with the organization, responded to questions about the lawsuit with a Tuesday statement.

"The Salvation Army was surprised today to read the press release issued by the Seattle field office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission," the statement said. "The Salvation Army actively participated in good faith in the conciliation process in this matter until such time as the EEOC unilaterally ended those discussions in July. It is disappointing that this press release is the first communication we have had from the EEOC since it did so."

Che said that the commission considers cases on an individual basis, and that it is required by law to negotiate toward a settlement before any legal action.

"If that fails, then we have the prerogative to file a lawsuit if we need to do so, and that's what happened in this case," Che said.

The EEOC is asking a judge to require anti-discrimination training at the Salvation Army, along with the posting of anti-discrimination notices and reporting on its compliance with the law. The suit also seeks back pay, interest and damages for the applicant, as well as coverage of the commission's legal costs — figures Che said Monday's filing didn't provide, because they are typically determined in court.

The applicant is no longer looking for work at the Salvation Army, however, because he found a position elsewhere.

"He's happy at his new job," Che said.