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McJobs and height as bona fide employment qualification

Questions of employment discrimination and of what counts as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” are always challenging.

(Photo: Bloomberg/Getty)

Questions of employment discrimination and of what counts as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” are always challenging.

See, for example, this story published yesterday in the Globe & Mail: Starbucks sued for firing dwarf from barista job

The U.S. government is suing Starbucks Corp. … saying the coffee company fired a barista in El Paso, Tex., because she is a dwarf.

When the employee asked for a stool or small stepladder to perform her job, Starbucks denied the request and fired her that same day, claiming that she could be a danger to customers and workers, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission….

As several commenters on the Globe story point out, the space behind a Starbucks counter is not a great place for an employee to stand stationary on a stool. It’s a fast-paced workplace in which people work with hot coffee and scalding jets of steam. So, Starbucks is at least not being entirely unreasonable in suggesting that allowing their would-be employee to stand there on a stool. That, I take it, is the key legal question.

But it seems to me that there’s another issue here, which has to do with just how critical this particular job is to this particular person. How critical the job is reveals the extent to which the company’s refusal to accommodate counts as an impediment to the would-be employee’s interests. Consider a different kind of example. Consider a situation in which the job in question is a high-paid unionized job, in a town with few employers. In such a situation, having that job might be really, really important. Or consider an employee who is moving up a corporate ladder. Imagine that the job at the third rung of the ladder (but only that one) requires that the employee receive some form of accommodation. Here, accommodation is crucial not just for the job, but for the employee’s entire career trajectory.

So there are, arguably, jobs for which accommodation is exceptionally important. But (with all due respect to the nice people who make my grande no-whip mocha) most of us don’t think of a job at Starbucks that way. We think of a job as a barrista as basically just another McJob, one which pays maybe a little over minimum wage and which is interchangeable with lots of other kinds of jobs in similar industries.

On the other hand, Starbucks likely doesn’t see its jobs that way, and doesn’t want to. At least, that’s the impression one gets from visiting the company’s Career Centre. So even if it turns out that Starbucks isn’t legally required to accommodate this person, doing so might be consistent with the values they claim to embrace, and the kind of workplace image they want to project.

Thanks to Dominic Martin for showing me this story.