A case involving Gas Field Specialists Inc (GFS), EEOC v. Gas Field Specialists Inc, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, No. 4:21-cv-01615, settled earlier this week. The case, filed in 2021 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, alleged that GFS, a Pennsylvania gas well service company, fired an employee with cancer because his cancer made him more vulnerable to COVID-19. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, the company agreed to pay a $184,000 settlement to a longtime employee. The company denied any wrongdoing.
The employee who was fired, Marlin Houghtaling, told the EEOC that an owner of the company, GFS, told Mr. Houghtaling that the company had to lay off individuals who had pre-existing health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19. The reason given to Mr. Houghtaling was that the company did not want these individuals to get sick. The company stated that Mr. Houghtaling’s diagnosis of cancer placed him at greater risk from COVID-19, and thus, he was let go.
Marlin Houghtaling was let go from GFS in May 2020. At the time, he was working as a rig hand and mechanic and had no restrictions in place due to his health. He had been working with the company for 15 years. The EEOC accused GFS of discriminating against Mr. Houghtaling specifically due to his illness, thus violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC also made it clear that letting an employee go specifically because they were at higher risk for catching COVID-19 and suffering more severe symptoms was not a basis for firing an employee and amounted to disability bias.
The $184,000 settlement covered $174,000 in lost wages due to Mr. Houghtaling, as well as $10,000 in compensatory damages. As part of the settlement, GFS also had to agree not to lay off or fire employees who may be at a higher risk of COVID-19. EEOC also required the company to document its specific reasons for not recalling workers who may have been subjected to seasonal layoffs.
While GFS did not have to admit to any wrongdoing, the EEOC was pleased with the outcome. It helped to show that employers do not have the ability to make personal decisions for their workers in regard to their medical history. The EEOC 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 outcome of this case helped to prove that point.