April 07, 2020

Rights investigator backs Caribou worker’s claim

AUGUSTA – An investigator working for the Maine Human Rights Commission has recommended the panel find reasonable grounds in a Caribou man’s claim that he was denied a bonus after complaining to OSHA about working conditions.

The commission is expected to rule on the complaint when it meets Monday, Oct. 30.

Rex Griffeth has been employed as a mechanic at Crown Equipment Inc. in Caribou since March 2000, according to investigator Robert Beauchesne’s report. Beginning in May 2002, Griffeth told his supervisors of his ongoing concerns “about the inadequate exhaust system in the shop,” according to the report.

After a supervisor ran a gasoline-powered tractor inside the shop without ventilating the exhaust in September 2003, Griffeth complained but was ignored, he said. He then told company president, identified in the report as “BD,” that “if something wasn’t done about the exhaust-ventilation system within 60 days that I was going to report it to the proper authorities,” according to the investigator.

Two months later, he contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA inspected the shop and found many safety violations, the investigator reported.

Griffeth was out of work for nearly three months in late 2004 after undergoing surgery. During that period, employees received a $200 bonus and a turkey. When he returned to work, Griffeth asked supervisors about receiving the bonus along with other employees and was told that “if I didn’t like what was going on, I could find another job,” he alleged.

BD told the investigator Griffeth’s complaints about the tractor had more to do with conflict between him and his immediate supervisor over other matters. The company president also said Griffeth did not give a time frame for improving ventilation in the shop.

BD told the investigator that “sometimes building upgrades are secondary to pay raises if we cannot justify both.”

In his analysis of the complaint, the investigator wrote that he found Griffeth “to be credible and consistent in his assertion that he had ongoing unaddressed concerns about the exhaust system where he worked” and that his complaints to his supervisors were made in good faith.

Beauchesne also noted that an employer should choose providing a safe workplace over pay raises, if such a choice must be made.

The investigator concluded that denying Griffeth the holiday turkey and bonus check seemed to come from “animosity relating to his earlier report to OSHA.”

Beauchesne concluded that “while it may seem somewhat petty for [Griffeth] to be complaining about not receiving a small holiday bonus or Thanksgiving turkey, the message from [Crown Equipment] was loud and clear – you caused this grief [from OSHA], and we are not going out of our way to do you any favors.”

The investigator has recommended the commission find reasonable grounds that Griffeth was subjected to discrimination in retaliation to “whistle-blowing.”

If the commission finds reasonable grounds, the matter proceeds to conciliation hearings. If that process fails, the complaint can proceed to Superior Court where a final settlement can include monetary damages.

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