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Ex-clerk: Oxygen tank got me fired

Woman says rights violated; employer won’t comment

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 4:55 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 5:13 a.m. CDT

OREGON – Donna Colvin had no bad evaluations in the 4 years she worked for Paddle Wheel Inn in Oregon, but the hotel fired her after she informed the manager that she would have to start using an oxygen tank, according to a federal lawsuit.

Colvin, 51, filed the lawsuit last week, claiming the hotel violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers.

The inn’s general manager declined to comment Tuesday.

Colvin is asking for back pay with interest and compensatory and punitive damages.

On Nov. 15, 2011, Colvin, the overnight desk clerk, told the inn’s general manager, Jethny Grimes, that she would need to use oxygen at work, the lawsuit said.  

In response, Grimes said Colvin, an Oregon resident, could not work the front desk while using oxygen, the suit said.

A day later, Colvin’s daughter, Sarah Palomarez, sent a text message asking whether Colvin’s shift would be covered.

Shortly after, Grimes responded with a text: “Yes, I have your mom’s shift covered. She is not able to work while on oxygen.”

Later that day, Grimes handed Palomarez a letter to give to Colvin. The letter officially terminated Colvin’s employment for not working her scheduled shifts and for being physically unable to do required work, the suit said.

The letter referred to an Oct. 17, 2011 memo, in which the hotel required employees to cover their assigned shifts or find replacements. The first time an employee violated the policy, she would receive a written warning. The second time, she would be terminated. 

Colvin, however, never received a written warning, according to the suit.

“Paddle Wheel did not want an employee who appeared to have a disability,” the suit says. “Colvin’s use of oxygen would not have prevented her from performing any of her job duties.”

The suit also says the hotel never gave her overtime compensation, even though she regularly worked more than 40 hours a week.

Colvin is represented by Rachel Weisberg, an attorney who works for Equip for Equality, a Chicago-based advocacy group for the disabled. 

“This seems like a very strong case,” Weisberg said. “Someone seeks an accommodation and is immediately terminated. This is the first employment case that we’ve dealt with that involves an oxygen tank.”

Paddle Wheel, she said, failed to follow the “interactive” process under ADA to figure out whether it could provide Colvin reasonable accommodations.

“This is something that could have been worked out,” Weisberg said. “Our client is a reasonable person. The oxygen tank is very small and portable. She could have taken off the tank during interactions with guests.”

Grimes declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. She said the inn’s owner, Carol Bush, also would not comment.

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