A Hancock County woman who worked at Portland radio stations for 38 years alleges in a lawsuit that she was illegally fired after refusing to return to the station’s office in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic work.
Randi Kirshbaum, 68, of Southwest Harbor, sought housing to work from home rather than office work on the advice of her doctor during the early months of the pandemic because of her age and a family history of lung disease, the complaint says.
Kirshbaum, who was a disc jockey and manager at WPOR and WCLZ, was fired in May 2020 after trying to continue working from home, according to the complaint. Due to her age and a family history of pulmonary fibrosis, which occurs when the lungs become damaged or scarred, Kirshbaum attempted to continue working remotely, as she had since mid-March when Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency and essentially turn off the state.
The DJ, who previously lived in Scarborough, is asking to be reinstated and is seeking unspecified damages, including arrears in payments and benefits and future lost earnings. The stations, part of Portland Radio Group, are owned by Saga Communications Inc. of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Kirshbaum’s case is part of a growing body of nationwide labor lawsuits alleging coronavirus-related work and employment violations.
Such lawsuits in Maine included allegations that a Cumberland County jail contractor had her security clearance revoked when she reported concerns about the jail’s virus protocols during an outbreak that a Portland grocery store fired an employee for refusing to Serving customers without masks, and that a Lincoln supermarket demoted an assistant manager after reporting to management that customers and staff were not following virus protocols.
Kirshbaum alleges her firing from the radio station violated the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, a component of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, both passed by Congress in response to the pandemic.
Her attorney, David Webbert of Augusta, said Friday that a complaint Kirshbaum filed against Saga with the Maine Human Rights Commission in late 2020 is pending. Once the commission investigator files a report, claims of discrimination will be added to the complaint, he said.
Saga, through his Portland attorney Shiloh Theberge, denied Kirshbaum’s allegations.
“Saga will not comment on this ongoing litigation other than to dismiss plaintiff’s claims and state that it plans to vigorously defend itself against those claims,” the company said.
Nationwide, labor lawsuits over labor issues are snaking through the courts during the pandemic, but no final decisions have been made, according to Webbert. Several plaintiffs in other states have survived motions to dismiss their lawsuits.
“These plaintiffs still have to prove their liability, but the courts’ willingness to allow them the trial suggests some viability to these theories,” Webbert said.
The COVID-19 outbreak and its aftermath have made teleworking an alternative to having employees do their jobs in an office in many professions.
Before the pandemic, courts were often skeptical about requests to work from home as reasonable accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act, noting that office work was an essential function of employees’ workplaces, Webbert said.
“However, the pandemic has shown that employees can successfully do their jobs remotely,” he said. “Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that the ability to work from home during the pandemic should be considered when assessing the continued viability of remote work.”
Kirshbaum currently works from her home on Mount Desert Island as a music director and on-air personality for radio stations in Baltimore and Vermont.
The case was originally filed in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland in May. Saga’s attorney filed a case in US District Court in Portland on Thursday. A response to the complaint is due Thursday.