Valley Information – Jim Kenyon: Disabled employee pressured out of the market

After two interviews and a few hours of job shadowing, Beth Baras was offered a full-time behind the counter position at Woodstock Farmers’ Market, an upscale grocery store in the west of town (not the open-air Farmstand Fest as the name implies. )

Five days later, Woodstock Farmers’ Market, which started as a family business in 1992, emailed Baras that it was withdrawing the job offer.

What has changed?

For starters, Baras, who was in her early 60s at the time, announced that she had a disability. In the same email to the market’s HR manager, Baras was looking for two places to stay before starting her new job, which was supposed to pay $ 12.50 an hour:

Could she bring an ice pack to work and wear it under her clothes regularly throughout the day? Also, could she take a 10-minute break if business moved slowly during her shift to stretch and put her feet up?

Baras has suffered from back pain for years, which doctors diagnosed as osteoarthritis. In 2014, she suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and continues to restrict her freedom of movement. But she can manage her conditions with physical therapy and exercise.

Baras, now 65, rents a small house 5 miles off Main Street in Norwich. When she applied to Woodstock Farmers’ Market in early 2018, she had just finished a seasonal job in a clothing store. She had also worked as a delicatessen clerk in the past.

After Woodstock Farmers’ Market withdrew his job, Baras filed an employment discrimination complaint with the Vermont Attorney General’s Civil Rights Unit in April 2018.

Upon its investigation, the AG’s office found that the market had not consulted a health professional to determine whether Baras’ disability would affect her professional duties. After learning of Baras’ physical condition, the company decided instead that she was “not the right person for the job,” Brandon Little, the market’s culinary director, later told a state investigator, according to the AG’s report .

The investigator pointed out in the report that Little, a minority partner of the company, made no distinction as to how a “short break to replace an ice pack or to sit would be different from an employee’s lawful request for a toilet break.”

In December 2020, the AG’s Civil Rights Unit found “sufficient evidence” to uphold Baras’ allegations. (Under the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act, it is illegal for any employer to discriminate against a “qualified person with a disability.”)

The case went to mediation, but no agreement could be reached. In March, Baras filed a civil lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act in federal court.

Finding full-time, welfare-related jobs can be difficult for an elderly person with a disability, said Marilyn Mahusky, an attorney with the Vermont Legal Aid Disability Law Project who represents Baras.

“We believe the law is on our client’s side and she has been treated badly,” Mahusky, who works at the nonprofit’s office in Springfield, Vt., Said in a telephone interview. “It is also an opportunity to educate other employers about their obligations under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.”

Woodstock Farmers ‘Market, which opened a second store in Waterbury, Vt., Two years ago, “has never had anything like it in 30 years,” said Rob Korhonen, chief operating officer, following Baras’ job with the company entered was canceled. “It has built a reputation for being a very compassionate company that please its employees.”

According to its website, the company has more than $ 9 million in annual sales and is currently offering a $ 500 hiring bonus to new hires.

After reading court documents, the two sides seem to agree on the basic facts. They just have different ideas about what disability rights mean.

“Due to the physical requirements of the job, (Woodstock Farmers’ Market) was unable to meet (Baras) requirements,” wrote Attorney Kaveh Shahi in the company’s response filed last week to the lawsuit.

After learning that Woodstock Farmers’ Market wasn’t looking for her, Baras worked for a while in auto sales and later as a temporary worker in the mail processing department of the US Postal Services in White River Junction. But she’s been unemployed since the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

People with disabilities must always “show that they belong and do what others can,” said AJ Ruben, a senior disability rights attorney in Vermont who will lead the nonprofit that cares for people later this month with disabilities and mental health problems.

Ruben was good enough to read the WG report before we talked. This case appears to be more of a “lack of understanding than malicious discrimination,” he said. “It seems like a teachable moment.”

I’m not sure Woodstock Farmers’ Market would be interested in studying. In the company’s first file, Shahi punished Vermont Legal Aid for hiring two lawyers to “pursue this fairly simple claim involving a deli position paying $ 12.50 an hour”.

Along with an unspecified amount of damages to Baras, Vermont Legal Aid is demanding attorney fees if they win, a common request in civil lawsuits.

Laws designed to prevent people with disabilities from being discriminated against are not a means of “collecting fees that are unreasonable and / or disproportionate to the amount in dispute,” argued Shahi.

Painting a public interest law firm working as a villain for low-income Vermonters is a stretch. “We are not pursuing this case so that we can collect fees,” said Mahusky. “We want to help people with disabilities to exercise their legal rights.”

Mahusky and Shahi are “respected lawyers,” Ruben told me. The survey of potential legal fees shows that Shahi is “very concerned that his client will lose,” said Ruben. “He’s working proactively to limit the amount his customer has to pay.”

For a high-end grocery store trying to defend what seems untenable to me, this is food for thought.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at [email protected].

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