In a settlement reached with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a Pennsylvania company, must pay $184,000 after firing an employee who suffered from cancer.
"Employers have an obligation to make personnel decisions without regard to employees’ medical history,” wrote Philadelphia District Regional Attorney Debra M. Lawrence in a statement on Aug. 2. “The unlawful employment practices, in this case, are unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces. This monetary settlement is an affirmation of who we are and what we believe as a country: that workplace discrimination is unacceptable and illegal.”
In a lawsuit filed in 2021, the EEOC alleged that a manager at Gas Field Specialists of Potter County told Marlin Houghtaling, an employee of 15 years engaged as an oil rig worker and mechanic,he was at increased COVID-19 risk because of a prior cancer diagnosis, and could no longer be employed by the company.
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Houghtaling received a cancer diagnosis in 2017. He told his employer and performed his job duties without restrictions beyond the need of occasional time off for medical visits, according to the suit.
On March 23, 2020, the suit alleges, Houghtaling was put on involuntary leave after being told by his employer that they were "laying off anybody with health issues" because of risks posed by COVID-19; the manager allegedly said he worried Houghtaling would be especially susceptible to the disease. Two months later, according to court filings, Houghtaling learned he'd been terminated after discovering that his medical insurance had been canceled.
Other employees were recalled from layoffs in duties Houghtaling could have performed, the EEOC suit alleged, and at no time did anyone from Gas Field Specialists contact Houghtaling about reassignment to other duties.
Gas Field Specialists "unlawfully discriminated against Houghtaling by laying off and then terminating him based on his disability," the EEOC alleged, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
In a consent decree this month, Gas Field Specialists admitted to no wrongdoing but agreed to pay $174,000 in back wages and $10,000 in damages. The company's management must undergo ADA training at their own cost, and must document the business reasons for future layoffs and terminations while the consent decree is in place.
“Many employees diagnosed with cancer choose to work through their condition — because, after all, they still have to make ends meet," wrote Philadelphia District Director Jamie R. Williamson. "This employee lost his job because this employer failed to provide full inclusion for people with disabilities.”
Neither Houghtaling nor lawyers for Gas Field Specialists responded to requests for comment.
The EEOC has issued guidance during the pandemic that employers may not discriminate in employment based on a worker's perceived greater susceptibility to COVID-19 based on age, pregnancy or certain medical conditions unless the employer is able to document a "direct threat" to the employee's health or the health of others.
"An employer’s concern for an applicant’s well-being — an intent to protect them from what it perceives as a risk of illness from COVID-19 — does not excuse an action that is otherwise unlawful discrimination," reads the federal guidance.
Matthew Korfhage is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewkorfhage
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: PA worker with cancer wrongfully fired over COVID risk, says EEOC