Jun 172009

Lawyers for about 1,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers today announced a proposed settlement of a long-running discrimination lawsuit filed against United Parcel Service Inc. in federal court in San Francisco.

The settlement of the suit initiated in 1999 by present and former drivers against Atlanta-based UPS, the world’s largest package delivery company, must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson.

The proposed pact would establish a protocol with a new hearing standard, set by a panel of outside experts, to determine whether deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can drive lightweight vans weighing less than 10,000 pounds.

Larry Paradis, a lawyer for the drivers, said the standard was found to be adequate to ensure safety, but is less restrictive than one set by the U.S. Department of Transportation for drivers of heavier trucks.

Paradis is executive director of Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates.

He said, “In the end, we struck a balance and worked with UPS to develop a compromise that serves the needs of both UPS and the class (of drivers).”

UPS Fleet Manager Gerry Eaker said, “UPS remains committed to treating our employees with disabilities, including those with hearing impairments, fairly, while maintaining our unwavering commitment to public safety.”

Eaker said, “The hearing protocol that is part of this agreement allows us to achieve both goals simultaneously.”

The company’s previous policy was that it automatically barred workers from driving the smaller trucks, known as package cars, if they didn’t meet the Department of Transportation standard for drivers of heavier trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds.

That standard required drivers to be able to hear a forced whisper from five feet away. The less restrictive new standard for the smaller vehicles would require drivers to hear a sound of 45 decibels at either of two given frequencies, Paradis said.

The lawsuit claimed that drivers’ ability to drive lightweight vans safely should be evaluated on an individual basis.

Henderson ruled in favor of the drivers in 2004 and a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in 2006. But last year, an expanded panel of the appeals court sent the case back to Henderson for further proceedings.

Henderson will hold a hearing on June 29 on whether to grant preliminary approval of the proposed settlement.

Paradis said UPS will then try out the proposed protocol for a year before both sides return to Henderson’s court for a fairness hearing on final approval of the plan.

The proposed settlement also calls for additional training and regular hearing testing of deaf and hearing-impaired drivers.

In an earlier part of the case, the drivers and UPS reached a settlement in 2003 on two other claims related to accommodations and promotions for deaf people.

The company agreed in the earlier settlement to improve communications systems, working conditions, promotion opportunities and workplace safety for deaf employees.

– Thanks to The San Francisco Examiner, http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/48214527.html