Former Employee Sues OHSU, Alleges Being Fired For Missing Work Due To COVID

OHSU Center for Health and Healing Building 2 South Waterfront Shutterstock July 25 2020.jpg

A former employee is suing Oregon Health & Science University for $500,000, alleging she was discriminated against when she was fired after filing workers’ compensation claims related to COVID, which she contracted while on the job.

Kaitlin Townsend had been employed at OHSU as respiratory therapist since 2018 and she contracted COVID-19 in May 2020 during the scope of her work, according to the complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Oct. 22.

Townsend filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was accepted by SAIF Corporation, Oregon’s nonprofit workers’ compensation insurance company, and took leave from work to recover and receive treatment, stated the lawsuit. 

She continued to suffer from severe COVID-19 symptoms for several months, and she was diagnosed with “Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection,” also known as Long COVID, as well as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a serious condition impacts the volume of blood flow. She subsequently filed additional workers’ compensation claims for the new diagnoses, according to the suit.

According to The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, “3 to 10 million Americans are experiencing symptoms of Long COVID, which are varied and ongoing, including neurological challenges, cognitive problems such as brain fog, shortness of breath, fatigue, pain, and mobility issues.”

And while many of these Americans seek disability resources for their cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as promised by President Joe Biden, they “are finding it difficult to qualify under a system that is unfamiliar and already tricky to navigate,” The New York Times reported earlier today.

On June 9, more than one year after she initially contracted COVID, SAIF Corporation closed Townsend’s workers’ compensation claim. She then requested additional medical leave from OHSU, as well as job-related accommodations for her disabilities, but soon after received a letter from The Standard Insurance Company denying her request for leave, the suit stated. Standard Insurance is also named in the lawsuit as it was providing employee absence management services to OHSU at the time.

The lawsuit alleges Townsend would have been able to perform the essential functions of her job or an alternative position with reasonable accommodations, including a period of leave, if OHSU had been willing to engage with her to determine those accommodations, but it did not.

The suit indicated the letter from Standard Insurance warned her that if she continued to miss work, she could be fired, as she did not qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act or other government mandated policies.

In July, the suit said, OHSU informed Townsend it had denied her request for disability accomodations. OHSU instead told her that she must “apply for extended medical leave and agree to be removed from her position with the option to reapply for the position at a later date if the position is open,” according to the lawsuit. 

After she declined to be removed, OHSU terminated her employment, stating she had violated its policy on unauthorized absences, according to the lawsuit..

Townsend’s suit alleges that her decision to file a workers’ compensation claim contributed to OHSU’s decision to fire her. Under state statute, termination as retaliation for filing a workers’ compensations claim qualifies as discrimination in employment. It’s under that statute that Townsend is seeking a half-million dollars in compensatory damages. The suit blames Standard Insurance for its role in misinforming OSHU of Townsend’s rights and denying her requests for medical leave.

As of press time, neither OHSU nor Townsend’s attorney had followed through on requests for comment.

You can reach Emily Green at [email protected] or on Twitter at @GreenWrites.

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