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Former Walgreens employee with asthma was fired for not wearing disposable COVID mask, suit claims

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A former Walgreens employee with asthma is suing the pharmacy giant, alleging she was fired for not wearing disposable masks that worsened her condition.

On Wednesday, Cynthia Stephens filed a lawsuit against the Bridgeton Walgreens where she worked, the pharmacy chain and several other unnamed defendants in Cumberland County Superior Court, claiming she was fired after they refused to let her wear cloth masks instead of disposable masks, which Stephens said aggravated her asthma.

The six-count lawsuit includes claims that Stephens was discriminated against for a medical condition defined as a disability, failure to provide reasonable accommodation and retaliation.

A Walgreens spokesperson declined a request to comment.

In September 2019, Stephens started working at the Bridgeton Walgreens as a pharmacy technician, according to the complaint. Months later, in March 2020, the company required all employees to wear disposable masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the suit said.

Stephens made it clear prior to the requirement that she was disabled due to asthma and that she could not wear disposable masks, which exacerbate her asthma, the suit said.

After asking a store manager if she could wear a cloth mask as an alternative, Stephens was told to talk to a regional manager. The regional manager told Stephens to speak to security operations, who instructed her to fill out accommodation forms, paperwork that would potentially allow her to wear the cloth masks, the suit said.

Stephens submitted the accommodation form and her request was approved through July 2020, according to the complaint.

But when Stephens applied to continue using cloth masks after July, she began to run into problems, the suit alleges.

On August 7, 2020, Stephens had an asthma attack at work that caused her to be taken to an emergency room in an ambulance, the suit said. She filed a worker’s compensation claim and returned to work soon after, the suit alleges.

In early September, Stephens asked about her request to keep wearing cloth masks and was told she couldn’t work in the pharmacy with one, the suit said.

The only alternative she was given was to take a demotion and a pay cut and work on the floor, the suit said. Security operations also told her to wear a disposable mask over the cloth mask or to wear a face shield, both options that Stephens claims would exacerbate her condition or make it difficult to see, the statement said.

With no alternatives that would not worsen her asthma, Stephens was fired, the suit alleges. It is unclear when she was fired.

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Rodrigo Torrejon may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @rodrigotorrejon.

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