AUGUSTA, Maine — When Lori Levesque worked for a nonprofit organization that helps disabled people, she suspected her co-worker was charging MaineCare for hours she didn’t work.
When Levesque reported this to her boss, she encountered a hostile workplace and was illegally fired, according to a complaint filed by her attorney with the Maine Human Rights Commission. On Monday the commissioners unanimously agreed that Allies Inc. of Bangor had fired Levesque in violation of the Maine Whistleblower Protection Act.
Allies Inc. helps people with physical and mental disabilities find work and services. Levesque, who lives in Fort Kent, worked at the Presque Isle branch of the nonprofit organization.
In its response to the commission complaint, Allies Inc. said Levesque wasn’t fired for whistle-blowing but for crossing boundaries with a client by purchasing items from a client’s catalog.
Maine Human Rights Commission Investigator Robert Beauchesne doubted this was true. For one thing, he wrote in his report to commissioners, the nonprofit kept a stack of catalogs, such as for Avon products, on a desk for employees to browse through. Further, Allies only banned personal interactions with clients that would cause a personal gain for employees. Purchasing items from a magazine wouldn’t have benefited Levesque, it would have cost her money, Beauchesne said Monday.
Levesque told the investigator that she was filing her own time sheet in October 2008 when she saw her co-worker’s sheet and noticed that some of the hours looked wrong. Levesque said she knew that her co-worker had been absent for a meeting but had marked down the hours for it anyway.
When Levesque told her boss, she was told that she “should not say a word about this to anyone” and that she “would likely get in trouble for reporting this,” according to Levesque’s attorney, Lisa Chase.
“I later learned that [my boss] and [my] coworker were personal friends,” Levesque wrote to the Human Rights Commission. “After I made that report, my workplace became hostile.”
It wasn’t until June 2009 that Levesque was fired. In that time, she reported another incident. She thought that same co-worker was using her position to help her husband get work. Soon after reporting that, she was fired.
Beauchesne wrote that although the whistle-blowing happened in October 2008 and the firing happened in June 2009, “it is found to be at least as likely as not that [Levesque’s] October 2008 report of alleged illegal conduct may have been at least a factor in [Allies’] June 2009 termination decision.”
At the Monday meeting of the commission, Beauchesne defended his report. He said even Levesque’s boss at the time ordered out of these catalogs.
The commission’s finding is not binding by law but may give Levesque grounds to file a lawsuit against the organization. Both parties first will try to resolve the complaint through a conciliation process.
In other action during Monday’s Maine Human Rights Commission meeting, one investigator’s report was thrown out entirely and now must be researched again. It was a strange move for the commission, which unanimously agreed to restart an investigation into alleged discrimination at the Dover-Foxcroft YMCA.
The report was written by a Human Rights Commission summer intern. The attorney from the YMCA said the law school student didn’t call her client or interview anyone at the YMCA before determining that the agency had discriminated against Shirley Kelderhouse of Dover-Foxcroft.
Kelderhouse said that she reported a safety violation at work, a broken screen in a racquetball court, and was fired shortly after. She said her dismissal was retaliation for her whistle-blowing. She said her superiors treated her differently after she reported the incident and looked for a reason to fire her. Her supervisor then wrote her a letter of recommendation, Kelderhouse told the commission as she tried to prove she was a good worker who was illegally fired.
The YMCA’s attorney, Robyn March, said reporting any broken equipment was part of Kelderhouse’s job at the time and would not have gotten her in trouble. According to March, Kelderhouse was fired after getting four formal warnings for excessive talking and socializing.
The intern who wrote the report stating that the YMCA acted illegally was not present Monday to defend his reasoning. Instead, Barbara Lelli, the commission’s chief investigator, stood up to talk to commissioners.
When commissioners questioned Lelli about the report she showed uncertainty that complaining about a broken piece of equipment was whistle-blowing. To qualify as whistle-blowing, Lelli said, the thing Kelderhouse reported would have to be illegal or a very unsafe activity. But right after reporting the broken screen in the racquetball court, Kelderhouse reportedly played a game with her daughter in the room. It was unclear how unsafe Kelderhouse thought the damage she reported was, Lelli said.
The commissioners voted to rescind the report and reopen the investigation, which John Gause, acting executive director of the organization, said was unusual for the commission to do.