SEATTLE — As a result of a lawsuit brought by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a California-based air cargo handler must end its practice of discriminating against pregnant and disabled employees, in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination. The company, Matheson Flight Extenders, must also pay $168,500, which will compensate harmed employees.
Matheson provides terminal and ground handling services for charter, regional, national and international air carriers. It operates at over 30 locations around the U.S., including SeaTac and Spokane airports. An Attorney General’s Office investigation uncovered its practice of refusing to accommodate employees’ disabilities if they occurred outside work, and identified nine Washington employees subjected to this unlawful policy.
“Employers cannot force employees to choose between their job and their physical safety or the health of their pregnancy,” Ferguson said. “There are laws that protect pregnant women and employees with disabilities in the workplace and my office will hold any employer accountable that does not follow them.”
Under a legally binding agreement filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Matheson will pay $168,500 to the Attorney General’s Office, which will compensate employees identified during the investigation who experienced discrimination. Matheson is also required to provide training on discrimination and civil rights laws to all managers and human resources staff who manage employees in Washington state. Further, Matheson must create a specific policy for pregnancy and disability accommodations in Washington.
The resolution also requires Matheson to offer light duty job assignments to pregnant employees and employees with disabilities not caused by a workplace injury on an equal basis as offered to employees who incur workplace injuries.
Employee complaint brought additional violations to light
While working for Matheson in 2016, a former Matheson employee learned she was pregnant. Her physician gave her a written instruction to not lift more than 30 pounds and avoid strenuous activity.
When the employee provided Matheson with her physician’s note and asked for a reasonable accommodation, her manager told her the company offered light duty for injuries that “occur on the job but typically not for pregnancies.” The manager sent her home. Matheson placed the employee on an unpaid leave of absence for nearly two months then terminated her employment.
The Attorney General’s Office investigation identified eight other employees that Matheson refused to accommodate by providing light duty or other accommodations that it routinely provided for employees with workplace injuries.
Ferguson filed a lawsuit in 2017 asserting Matheson had discriminated against employees based on their sex and disability, since it did not provide light duty accommodations to pregnant employees or those with a disability that was not caused by a workplace injury.
Matheson attempted to avoid accountability by twice asking the court to dismiss the Attorney General’s lawsuit. Matheson argued that because the case had not first gone through the Washington State Human Rights Commission, the Attorney General’s Office could not sue the company. In this case, a former Matheson employee and the legal aid organizations the Fair Work Center and Legal Voice, complained directly to the Attorney General’s Office.
In February, Judge Coughenour affirmed the Attorney General’s authority to independently enforce violations of the Washington Law Against Discrimination, regardless of whether or not a complaint has been made to the Human Rights Commission.
In 2020, Judge Coughenour rejected Matheson’s prior motion to dismiss the case.
Judge Coughenour wrote in his finding that Matheson should not be able to “hide behind a policy of not creating light duty positions for employees with non-work-related disabilities” without making any effort to accommodate those workers. He agreed that “if an employer creates light duty positions for one group of employees with disabilities, then the employer must create those positions for all employees with disabilities unless doing so would be unreasonable or an undue burden.”
The judge, however, said a jury should decide issues like those during a future trial. The consent decree resolves the case without a trial.
Assistant Attorneys General Mitchell Riese and Chalia Stallings-Ala’ilima, Paralegals Judy St. John and Jennifer Treppa, Legal Assistant Anna Alfonso, and Investigator Alma Poletti from the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division handled the case for Washington.
Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Ferguson named the division for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.email@example.com