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DOL Sues New York Company Over Worker Firing After Complaint

June 1, 2021, 8:58 PM

A New York health-care provider and its CEO unlawfully fired an office manager who had refused to attend a meeting because she feared exposure to the coronavirus, the U.S. Labor Department said in a federal lawsuit filed in New York.

The DOL accused Community Health Center of Richmond Inc. of violating the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

It’s one of the first agency-initiated claims brought against an employer over pandemic safety issues.

The nonprofit employer is accused of suspending and terminating the employment of Qiana Nuñez because she reported the potential for exposure to Covid-19 at an in-person staff meeting scheduled for the day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in March 2020 allowing non-essential government employees to stay home due to the pandemic’s rapid spread. The company is described on its website as a public health service.

On the day of the meeting, Nuñez scheduled a teleconference as opposed to what was normally an in-person meeting. Henry Thompson, the company’s CEO, told Nuñez to change the meeting format back to in-person programming. She then refused to attend the meeting in person.

Nuñez was suspended on March 19 for alleged “insubordination, confrontational and disruptive behavior,” then was fired on April 3, 2020.

The DOL seeks to enjoin the company from allegedly violating the OSH Act, as well as damages and back pay and rehiring for Nuñez.

Cause of Action: Discrimination in violation of the OSH Act.

Relief: Lost wages, punitive damages.

Response: A company representative didn’t immediately respond to a Bloomberg Law voicemail and email requesting comment.

Attorneys: DOL attorney David J. Rutenberg represents the agency.

The case is Walsh v. Community Health Center of Richmond, Inc., E.D.N.Y., No. 1:21-cv-03094, 6/1/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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