WATERVILLE, Maine — An investigator at a state agency found there is reason to believe the employer of a hearing-impaired woman from Leeds discriminated against her on the basis of her disability.
Agnes Farnsworth worked at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program where she drove as a volunteer for 17 years until she was fired in 2011, according to an investigator at the Maine Human Rights Commission.
The agency is a not-for-profit that has provided social services for economically disadvantaged people in Central Maine for more than 40 years. Among the services they offer are home ownership, repair and weatherization, heating assistance, child care and transportation.
In her complaint, Farnsworth said the agency discriminated against her, fired her and retaliated against her because of her hearing disability. She wrote that, as a result, she was deprived of the benefits, privileges and services that came with her position at the agency. Those included tax-free payment or reimbursement for mileage, training, connection to the community and experience. Farnsworth said she regarded the job as her “livelihood.”
The agency said Farnsworth was never an employee; instead, she was a volunteer. Farnsworth’s disability was accommodated, but she was fired because of performance problems, according to the agency.
Farnsworth said the agency hired her and fired her, demonstrating its position as employer. The agency also directed her in daily assignments and controlled how she would perform her duties, she said.
Although she used her car to transport agency clients, she was required by the agency to conduct a pre-trip safety check in accordance with the agencies standards.
In March 2011, Farnsworth asked to receive text messages on her agency-provided cellphone instead of calls, due to her hearing loss, when instructions were relayed to her about passenger pickups and drop-offs.
That form of communication was used for two weeks then stopped. The agency’s transportation manager sent her a letter telling Farnsworth she was fired because “communication between staff and yourself (sic) has become almost impossible in regards to phone conversations and that is a very important part of our process,” according to a report filed by Michele Dion, an MHRC investigator.
The agency listed problems with Farnsworth’s performance as a volunteer driver, including missed or late appointments, last-minute cancellations and passenger complaints of erratic driving. Farnsworth denied all of the agency’s claims.
The agency said it used a combination of texting and phone calls for Farnsworth and other drivers after concluding that texting alone was an ineffective way of communicating because the agency’s cellphone provider’s service had “irregularities.”
Farnsworth said she never had a problem with being sent text messages. She would pull over to the side of the road to read them and respond, she said.
She currently works as a driver for Community Concepts in Lewiston performing similar duties, she said.
The Maine Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination against employees because of physical disability. In Maine, the settled common law does not require an individual to receive any compensation in order to be ‘an employee,’” according to the investigator’s report.
The agency fired Farnsworth after “refusing to continue providing her with reasonable accommodation for her hearing impairment,” Dion wrote in her report for the commissioners, recommending the commission find that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the agency discriminated against Farnsworth by firing her because of a physical disability.