Don’t Cry: You Can’t Peel An Onion But You Won Your Case!

This disability discrimination case arises from Northern Ireland – but the principle is applicable here in the US.

Seems that a woman developed glaucoma and chronic uveitis when a teenager, and at 23 she lost all left eye vison. Significantly, she experienced terrible pain when she peeled fresh onions.

And that’s what the problem was.

She worked since 2012 as a production operative preparing various vegetables at a place known as Summer Garden Salads. She told her employer about her eyes right up front, and experienced no problem with her employment, and was a good and reliable worker – the onions which she had to work with were dried and frozen, so no pain or distress.

Wouldn’t you know it — in 2017 the company bagged its dried and frozen onion line, and began to use fresh onions. You know – fresh is better.

But not for our employee.

She said that “I had no problem handling and cooking onions, but, when I was asked to help with peeling or chopping them, it caused me a lot of pain and discomfort in my eyes. I had to attend the eye clinic at the [Royal Victoria] hospital and was off work.”

The employer gave her goggles to wear – an accommodation! – but these had to be placed over her glasses which then steamed up.  Not good.

She procured a medical letter from her physician which said that she was good to go at work, but asked that she be excused from one task – peeling onions.

She was, nevertheless, fired. The employer stated:

“Continuing health problems … made it impossible for us to continue to employ her in her role as a production operative” and because onions were handled in all parts of the production process, it had “no other alternative work available.”

The industrial tribunal, to which she took her disability case, found disability discrimination in violation of the relevant statute because of the company’s failure to make reasonable adjustments (i.e., accommodations, to US folks).  She received close to a £12,000 award by the tribunal.

Significantly, according to the article, the judge noted that “the suggested adjustments to allow the woman to continue working would have incurred little or no cost to the business.”

Sound familiar to readers of this post?   Let’s recap.

Accommodations Are Usually Not Hard – Or Expensive

As recently as last month I posted “It isn’t all that difficult (and usually not particularly expensive) to arrive at a ‘reasonable accommodation’ – at least compared to the cost of litigation and settlement.”

And last March I wrote that:

Employers must engage in an interactive process with a requesting employee who is pregnant or who has a disability to seek a reasonable accommodation that is not unduly burdensome to you.

It isn’t all that difficult (and usually not particularly expensive) to arrive at a “reasonable accommodation” – at least compared to the cost of litigation and settlement. And in the new case – the accommodation was already being made for other employees.

And in June 2016, I quoted an EEOC who said that “Many times when there is a conflict between an employee’s religious beliefs and a work rule, there are easy modifications to company policy permitting an employee to continue to work without violating his religious beliefs.”

As to this new decision from Northern Island, the senior legal officer at the UK Equality Commission said: “These are the kind of circumstances which the reasonable adjustment provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act were designed to deal with. Relatively minor changes to the working environment can make a world of difference to someone who may otherwise find that they are, for all practical purposes, excluded from particular kinds of work.”

Let’s come back to the US now

Employers should not get all teary-eyed about disabilities and accommodations – it’s not that difficult to grasp or implement.

My partner and co-blogger Amy Epstein Gluck wrote a great post on accommodations:

“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers (with more than 15 employees) to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee with a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA (it’s a broadly interpreted term) that substantially limits one or more major life activity(ies) or has a record of a disability. … [E]mployers should note that the ADA only protects employees who are “qualified”, i.e., possessing the skill, experience, and education to do the job and able to perform the essential functions of a position with or without any reasonable accommodation.

A reasonable accommodation is a change in the way duties are performed to help a disabled employee perform his or her job duties or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. If a disabled employee requests a reasonable accommodation, an employer must provide it unless doing so would cause “undue hardship,” defined as significant difficulty or expense for the employer given its size, financial resources, and the needs of the business. An employer may not refuse to provide an accommodation just because it involves some cost, but in truth, most accommodations are free or less than $500.


If your employee has to peel an onion or two but can’t due to a disability, just let her/him sit out that task and, maybe, peel some potatoes. … or better yet, an artichoke! 

They’re delicious fried or broiled– makes any salad deelish!

… or as a dip at Thanksgiving!


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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]