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Gabrielle Erway

Feb 012013

isabelperezAs a result of a supposed message from God, one long time human resources professional was fired after a mere two weeks working in her new position.

Isabel Perez, who had been employed in HR for 15 years at the time she accepted a position as HR Director for Ashley Furniture Home Store, is married to a woman and claims that her manger fired her based on her sexual orientation stating that God told her to after she noticed a sticker in support of gay rights on Perez’s vehicle.

Surprisingly, in many states, it is legal to fire someone for being gay. However, in Perez’s favor, New Jersey is not one of them and she has decided to file suit.

Perez, who began working for Ashley in 2011, states that even in her first interviews she suspected that her sexual orientation could pose an issue. During the interview process, she apparently was questioned about the ring on her finger and inquiries were made about her view of hiring gays and African Americans.

At the time, Perez openly voiced her beliefs regarding equal employment but dodged questions regarding her marriage. While she admits, “It was uncomfortable,” she says. “As a human resources person, you think, ‘I’ll be able to change the culture…this is a point I could bring up later and discuss.’”

Perez was not successful in changing the culture and attitudes within the company and in her extremely short tenure was given gender and race specifications for job openings. She claims to have been directed by executives to hire only women or white people for certain jobs and to avoid hiring gays or lesbians.

Immediately objecting to the stipulations, she was told that maybe she didn’t fit in. In what may have been the final straw, Perez was warned, “you won’t last here,” by an employee processing her human resources paperwork which indicated that she had a female partner.

Not long after that, the chain’s director of People Services and Development, Kathy Martin, spotted a Human Rights Campaign sticker on Perez’s car, and questioned Perez about it. During the conversation, Martin stated that she needed to speak to God about the matter.

The following day, just two weeks into her employment, Perez was fired and told by Martin in a meeting between the two and a sales manager that God had spoken to Martin and that while the termination was not performance related and that Martin believed Perez could “easily manage the entire department,” she just didn’t “fit the culture” and that her “beliefs just don’t fit.”

“I had just given up everything to join an organization, thinking I could change the culture,” says Perez, who believes that she was retaliated against for standing up to discriminatory comments and standing up for her own sexual orientation.

Perez has acquired a new sense of purpose through her ordeal. In addition to filing suit in New Jersey, where it is illegal for private employers to terminate an employee solely on their sexual orientation regardless of the employer’s beliefs, she plans to bring awareness to the fact that there are no federal laws protecting gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. She adds, “I have to make a difference within the human resources community.”

Jan 252013

swine-flu-at-work-coughing-jerk‘Tis the season: flu season. You’re coughing, sniffling, achy, and feverish. While climbing back into bed with the box of tissues by your side sounds like a great idea, do you do it? Or do you drag yourself to work?

If you are one of the estimated 40% of American workers who have no paid sick days, it’s likely that you will dose up on some over the counter medication and head to work.

Under current U.S. labor law, employers are not required to provide short-term paid sick days or longer-term paid sick leave causing tens of millions of workers to go without paid sick time. Millions of workers each year go to work sick resulting in decreased productivity and increased risk of spreading germs and illness to co-workers, clients and customers.

As the number of flu cases increases, so does the debate surrounding paid sick leave. While we can probably all agree that if you’re sick the best place for you is at home resting, getting well and keeping your germs to yourself. But for many, their financial situation and workplace policies dictate otherwise.

For Diana Zavala, a school speech therapist working as an independent contractor, missing work was not an option even though she was feeling miserable and fearful she had caught the flu. As she puts it, not having paid sick time creates “a balancing act” between physical health and financial well-being.

According to Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who are calling on colleagues in the House and Senate to cosponsor the Healthy Families Act (HFA), it doesn’t have to be this way. DeLauro, who initially introduced the plan with Senator Edward M. Kennedy back in 2004, plans to reintroduce HFA with Harkin in mid-February.

Under the HFA, workers would be eligible to earn up to 1 hour of paid sick time for each 30 hours worked, up to 7 days of leave.

But many employers and small business owners, while sympathetic to their employees’ situations, find themselves in the midst of their own financial struggles and say requiring them to pay employees for sick days would impose an unrealistic and impractical burden.

It’s a tough call: assist employees at the cost of the company or vice-versa? We mustn’t forget the other important dynamic that needs to be taken into consideration: the well-being of customers and clients.

While paying a sick employee for the day off might not be the best financial option for your business, neither is losing customers because your barista is making the morning lattes while hacking with a cough, a sneezing waitress is delivering lunch to the table or a feverish executive is spreading more germs than ideas around the conference table.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, compromises can be made to protect the interests of all involved: employers, employees and consumers.

Jan 182013


For those employed in the teaching profession, there is usually a student here or there that knows how to push your buttons and “make your blood pressure soar.”

But for one longtime high school teacher, her rare phobia causes a fear of young children and literally creates physical symptoms such as a dangerous spike in blood pressure and she has taken legal action against school district administration for alleged discrimination.

Maria Waltherr-Willard had been teaching Spanish and French at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati for more than three decades when she was transferred to the district’s middle school in 2009. According to Waltherr-Willard, the seventh and eighth grade students she was forced to work with triggered her phobia compelling her to retire in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year.

She is suing the school district contending that her condition, pedophobia: fear or anxiety around young children, falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the district violated the ADA by transferring her, refusing to allow her return to teaching at the high school level and pressuring her to resign.

School district attorney, Gary Winters, states that she was transferred because the French program was being converted to an online learning program and that the middle school was in need of a Spanish teacher.

But, Walter-Willard believes her transfer was based, at least partially, upon retaliation for comments made to parents and her assistance in fighting the district’s decision to cut French classes in favor of the online course. Her attorney, Bradford Weber, in a July 2011 letter to the EEOC, stated that her transfer was, “the beginning of a deliberate, systematic and calculated effort to squeeze her out of a job.”

Waltherr-Willard, who has no children of her own, has supposedly suffered from the phobia since the 1990s and claims that Mariemont had been sympathetic of her diagnosis and had made previous assurances to her and her lawyer that she would not be required to teach young children.

In addition to being treated for the phobia, the lawsuit states that she also suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, high blood pressure and a gastrointestinal illness: conditions she was apparently managing well prior to her transfer.

Documents filed on her behalf from her medical doctor, psychiatrists and psychologists state that when she is around young children she experiences extreme stress and anxiety with chest pain, vomiting, nightmares and dangerously high blood pressure.

Her doctor said that at times, after the transfer, her blood pressure was so high it posed a stroke risk. Aside from physical symptoms, her doctor has also noted that “the mental anguish suffered is serious and of a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure.”

Walter-Willard is seeking past and future pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. Winters, denying her claims, says that her motivation is merely financial. She just wants money. He adds that, “our goal here is to provide the best teachers for students and the best academic experience for students, which certainly wasn’t accomplished by her walking out on them in the middle of the year.”

A federal judge recently dismissed three of the six claims in her suit stating that the school district lived up to its written contract – with the teachers union – and had she not willfully retired, Waltherr-Willard would still be employed.

No ruling was made on the other allegations, awaiting district response and a tentative trial date is scheduled for February 2014.



Jan 112013

Hilda SOlisHaving taken the opportunity over the holidays to reflect on her past and her future, Hilda Solis has made what she claims to be one of the toughest decisions she has ever faced and has announced her resignation as Secretary of Labor.

As the first Latina to lead a federal agency, Solis leaves her four-year tenure with the Obama administration to, “begin a new future” and return to her roots and the people and places she loves in California.

Solis believes she has much to be proud of as she prepares to step down. “Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve in a president’s Cabinet, let alone in the service of such an incredible leader,” she says.
In response to her resignation announcement, President Obama issued a brief statement wishing her well and praising her service. Calling her a “tireless champion for working families,” Obama stated that Secretary Solis has “been a critical member over my economic team as we have worked to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and strengthen the economy for the middle class.”

He added that her efforts have helped train workers for the jobs of the future, protect workers’ health and safety and put millions of Americans back to work.  He said, “I am grateful to Secretary Solis for her steadfast commitment and service not only to the Administration, but on behalf of the American people.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka credits Solis with bringing “urgently needed change to the Department of Labor, putting the U.S. government firmly on the side of working families.” He notes that under her direction, “the Labor Department became a place of safety and support for workers,” and that Solis “never lost sight of her own working-class roots,” always putting the values of working families at the center of all she did.

He has urged the president to pick a successor who, as he points out, “will continue to be a powerful voice both within the Obama administration and across the country for all of America’s workers.”
Although no specific date has been mentioned, Labor Department officials expect Solis’ departure to be around the time of the inauguration later this month. While talk of her replacement is mere speculation at this point, Solis’ resignation could intensify pressure on the White House to consider diversity in its Cabinet appointments.

According to Solis, “Leaving the department is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, because I have taken our mission to heart. As the daughter of parents who worked in factories, paid their union dues and achieved their goal of a middle class life, and as the first Latina to head a major federal agency, it has been an incredible honor to serve.”

Dec 212012

600-01195064Do you think what goes on behind closed exam room doors at the doctor’s office is a personal and private matter and confidential information about your health goes no further than the medical records department? Your employer’s policy may dictate otherwise.

Current and former employees of Dillard’s Inc., a national retail chain, found that to be the case. Just this week, the company agreed to pay $2 million and has committed to extensive injunctive relief to resolve a 4-year-old class action disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC.

The suit challenged the legality of Dillard’s longstanding policy requiring workers to divulge confidential medical information to be approved for sick leave and terminated those who did not feel comfortable revealing such information. Dillard’s allegedly also violated the ADA by firing workers who took more than their allotted sick time.

Originally, the EEOC filed suit in 2008 on behalf of employees, including Corina Scott, a former cosmetics counter employee at an El Centro, California Dillard’s store, who had been required since 2005 to disclose specifics of their medical conditions in order to take sick time. Scott says, “It was humiliating to be fired after expressing my right to keep my medical information private.”

Although they had verifications from doctors ensuring Dillard’s that their absences were indeed medically- related, many of the employees did not feel comfortable sharing the specifics. According to the EEOC, Scott, who was absent just four days, was among those fired in retaliation for refusal to provide details of her medical condition after acting on doctor’s advice not to disclose personal medical information in accordance with the law.

The EEOC alleged that Dillard’s disclosure policy violated the ADA which prohibits employers from making inquiries into the disabilities of their employees unless it is job-related and necessary for the conduct of business and that the company failed to properly determine if additional leave was allowed as accommodation of the employee’s disability under the ADA.

The District Court sided with the EEOC ruling that that Dillard’s policy was facially discriminatory under the ADA and the parties entered into a three-year consent decree. Dillard’s will pay $2 million to identified victims and establish a class fund for currently unidentified victims who suffered similar discrimination during the relevant time period. “I’m grateful to the EEOC for assisting me and the many other workers who were also affected,” says Scott.

Additional persons may be eligible for monetary rewards as part of the settlement and the EEOC expects to identify thousands of victims across the U.S. through the claims notice process designed to distribute the class fund arising from the settlement.

Furthermore, Dillard’s must hire a consultant with ADA experience to review and revise company policies as deemed appropriate; post documentation related to the settlement; implement training for supervisors and staff on the ADA with emphasis on medical enquiries and maximum leave policies; and develop a centralized tracking system for employee complaints involving disability discrimination. Dillard’s will submit annual reports to the EEOC verifying their compliance.

Speaking on behalf of the EEOC, Anna Park, regional attorney for the Los Angeles District Office says, “We commend Dillard’s for agreeing to measures that will prevent and effectively address potential disability discrimination. Policies and practices that permit medical inquiries without proof of a valid business necessity run afoul of the law, often having large-scale consequences.” She also issues a reminder that “all employers should carefully examine their own policies and practices to ensure compliance with federal law.”