Gas company to pay $184,000 to worker with cancer fired over COVID risk

The seal of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is seen in their office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Company said cancer placed worker at greater risk from COVID-19
  • Agency claimed the decision amounted to disability bias

(Reuters) - A Pennsylvania gas well service company will pay $184,000 to settle claims that it unlawfully fired a longtime employee because his cancer made him more vulnerable to COVID-19, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said on Thursday.

The settlement with Gas Field Specialists Inc (GFS) was announced by the EEOC a day after it was filed in Scranton, Pennsylvania federal court, ending a 2021 lawsuit by the agency. The company denied wrongdoing.

The EEOC claimed an owner of GFS told the worker, Marlin Houghtaling, that the company had to lay off anyone with health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic because the company did not want them to get sick.

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The commission accused GFS of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against Houghtaling, who had worked for the company for 15 years, on the basis of his disability. At the time he was fired in May 2020, Houghtaling was performing the duties of a rig hand and mechanic without restrictions, the EEOC said.

The settlement requires GFS to pay Houghtaling $174,000 in lost wages and $10,000 in compensatory damages. The company also agreed not to take adverse actions against employees who may be at a higher risk of complications due to COVID-19, and to document its reasons for not recalling workers from seasonal layoffs.

Lawyers for GFS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Debra Lawrence, the EEOC's regional attorney in Philadelphia, said the case underscores employers' obligations to make personnel decisions without regard to workers' medical history.

In guidance that has been updated throughout the pandemic, the EEOC has said that employers cannot take adverse actions against workers who are older, pregnant, or have underlying medical conditions that may put them at greater risk.

The agency said "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."

The case is EEOC v. Gas Field Specialists Inc, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, No. 4:21-cv-01615.

For the EEOC: Debra Lawrence and David Staudt

For GFS: Lisa Presta of MacDonald Illig Jones & Britton

Read more:

U.S. employers must try to accommodate workers vulnerable to coronavirus: agency

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.