2 workers file discrimination complaints

January 26, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Staff Writer

Two former employees of the Laurel Thrift Stores have filed discrimination complaints against the company, saying they were suspended and later fired for calling in sick on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last year.

Coretta Murphy, 25, of North Laurel and a former co-worker took their case last year to the Howard County Human Rights Commission, seeking lost wages and an unspecified amount of cash damages.

The commission has agreed to hold a public hearing about the complaint, according to attorneys for both sides. No date has been scheduled for the hearing.

"Our supervisor said she found it mighty strange that we were all sick on Martin Luther King's birthday," said Ms. Murphy, who had worked for the company for three years. "But when you're sick -- regardless of the day -- it doesn't matter."

But store representatives say that three employees involved in the incident were reprimanded for failing to give proper notification and appropriate documentation, such as a doctor's note, to justify their absences.

They also say that one worker didn't return after the suspension and say another disrupted the office while she was supposed to be on suspension.

"She was yelling and screaming and cursing in an office of approximately 20 people," said Bruce Cohen, the treasurer of the company, located at 9880 U.S. 1 in North Laurel. He would not name the worker.

Ms. Murphy, now a student at Prince George's Community College, said the incident unfolded after she and two other co-workers were suspended for two days without pay after they called in sick on Martin Luther King's birthday on Jan. 18, 1993.

The employees worked in the company's computer programming department, which has four people. At the time, all of the workers were black, company representatives said.

"When I called to talk to my supervisor, she was not there," said Ms. Murphy. "I left a message with the receptionist . . . like everybody else in that office did. I did go through the proper procedure."

She said that the next day at work, she handed her supervisor her doctor's note. Ms. Murphy and her two co-workers later were suspended.

Two of the workers then filed a discrimination complaint with the commission, according to Joann C. Branche, the Columbia lawyer representing the two. She declined to give the second employee's name.

Ms. Murphy said she and the co-worker were fired after the company discovered that they had filed the complaint.

The third person involved in the incident later quit, Ms. Murphy said.

Ms. Murphy denied that any of the three former workers entered the office yelling, screaming and cursing, as claimed by Mr. Cohen and Richard Kolevant, a Laurel attorney representing the company.

"Neither one of them were there at the time," Ms. Murphy said.

Representatives of the company defended the supervisor who suspended the workers and who still works there.

Whenever employees are sick, the company has a policy that requires them to call their supervisor or the next person in the chain of command and inform that person that the employee will not be in that day, Mr. Kolevant said.

"It had nothing to do with Martin Luther King's birthday," said Mr. Kolevant. "This is an employer-employee problem. If this happened on any other day, it would be the same policy."

Mr. Kolevant confirmed that one of the workers -- he refused to say which -- turned in a doctor's note after the suspension. But he said the worker failed to turn it in at the appropriate time.

Laurel Thrift Stores, formerly a branch of the Maryland Department of Disabled American Veterans Inc., buys clothing, furniture and toys from Amvets and other companies and resells them to the public. Before this incident, no employees ever had been reprimanded for failing to give the appropriate notification or documentation for sick leave, Mr. Kolevant said.

The store is open on most holidays, except Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Thanksgiving Day. In addition, employees receive an extra holiday for observance of their birthdays.

After six months of employment, workers receive one week of sick leave each year. Unused sick leave does not roll over into the next year.

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