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Petaluma man says he felt pressure to leave Safeway job after requesting medical accommodation

A Petaluma man with spina bifida who worked at a local Safeway for more than two years says he felt forced to quit after he sought accommodations for his medical condition.

Noah Leader, 24, said the condition caused him to miss work at least once per week during his time at Safeway, a problem Leader said his former supervisor largely tolerated. But a change in supervisors — and Leader’s decision to seek formal accommodations in his job this past summer — led to what Leader described as pressure to resign.

“I just felt under pressure,” Leader said. “I could not think at the moment, so I just resigned so I could go to another Safeway if I wanted to.”

Safeway officials say Leader’s characterization of his time at Safeway was inaccurate.

“As in many workplaces, management sometimes privately counsels employees about their work performance including unexcused absences,” said Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall, adding that the store provides accommodations to applicants and employees as needed, including at the Sonoma Mountain Parkway store. “Safeway is committed to fostering an inclusive workplace and proudly employs people of all abilities in its stores.”

When Leader landed his first steady job — at Safeway in April 2019 — it was a moment of celebration, especially since the store was only steps away from his home. Upon joining the company, Leader called the work environment at Safeway “fantastic.”

Leader, who has lived in Petaluma for six years, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t properly form. He said that throughout his 24 years, he had undergone at least 20 surgeries, the latest in 2017 after which he had to re-learn how to walk.

“So I’ve been through a lot,” he said.

At Safeway, though, where Leader held a variety of positions, including cashier, he said he initially found support.

“The manager (who hired me) was totally understanding about everything that was going on, about my accommodations and about my disability,” Leader said. “So I never had proper paperwork because I didn’t even know about it. For a long time, nobody said there was an accommodation packet that you had to fill out. Nobody ever told me about that, because every single person in that store understood my disability and understood what I was going through.”

Leader said that, due to day-to-day complications from spina bifida, he needed to call out sick from work, most of the time at least once a week, though he said he really tried not to and called in sick only as a last resort. However, he added that his manager was supportive and even let him come to work just for the dinner rush hour.

Then after his first year of employment, Leader said his current manager was transferred.

“Then after that the new boss came in,” Leader said. “I explained everything and she was willing to work with me.”

Leader said his new manager later became agitated with him for repeatedly needing to miss work due to his condition, even though he said he was not missing any more time than he did before.

In late July, Leader said the manager gave him accommodation papers to fill out and return. A month later, Leader said his manager called him into the office and gave him an option to resign that day or put in a two weeks’ notice.

“She specified that my time and attendance was getting out of hand due to my medical issues,” Leader said.

Reached by phone, a Safeway store manager at the Sonoma Mountain Parkway location declined to comment on the matter.

California law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer.

Excessive absences, though, are not protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2001.

“All I wanted to do was just be there for the customers,” Leader said.

After Leader left the company, his mom posted about the situation to the social media platform NextDoor, receiving a wave of response from community members.

“So I’m getting all this support, which is great although a little overwhelming,” Leader said.

Leader said he has felt sadness, anger and anxiety when thinking about how his employment ended, and will especially miss the bonds he created with both customers and coworkers. However, he said he’s looking forward to what may lie ahead.

Leader said he hasn’t yet pursued legal recourse, but he is in talks with a few contacts who have reached out to him to do so.

He is also working with the local union about possible next steps. The Argus-Courier reached out via email to the UFCW 8-Golden State for comment, but has not received a response.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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