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Ashland YMCA denies allegations in age discrimination lawsuit

A second discrimination lawsuit was filed against the Ashland Family YMCA June 4, with allegations of discrimination based on age, gender and disability.

The complaint filed in Jackson County Circuit Court delineates 17 alleged violations of state and federal law, including discrimination, harassment, retaliation, failure to reasonably accommodate, wrongful termination, failure to pay wages, breach of contract and defamation. The suit seeks $760,320 in compensation for the alleged violations.

Plaintiff Jane Mullowney, 66, a former employee of the Y, filed the case against the institution, CEO Dan Crocker and Human Resources Director Kim Souza.

“The YMCA is committed to providing an inclusive and discrimination-free environment for our staff and guests, and it takes the public’s trust very seriously. We categorically deny the allegations made by Mr. Dimitre on behalf of his clients,” said lawyer Alexandra Hilsher, spokesperson for the Y in this case. “At the same time, we acknowledge the right of any member of our community to file a lawsuit. We will defend against the lawsuits in the forum Mr. Dimitre and his clients have chosen, not in the press, and we are confident that we will prevail.”

Mullowney started working at the Y as a fitness attendant in November 2017 and progressed to personal fitness trainer and yoga instructor.

The Ashland YMCA closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and all employees were sent home. Mullowney obtained written guidance from her physician to remain on leave from work until the public health risk diminished sufficiently, due to underlying health conditions, according to case documents.

Two doctor recommendations were sent to Y administration advising that Mullowney should remain home from the fitness center until phase one reopening.

Lawyer Thomas Dimitre said Mullowney was exploring the process to return to work in July 2020 when she received notice she was laid off due to her age and susceptibility to COVID-19.

“When I called the human resources person to ask her exactly why I was laid off, she told me it was because of my vulnerability to COVID and my age,” Mullowney said. “My career has kind of been destroyed due to being laid off in that manner.”

Dimitre said the law requires employers to work with employees to identify what jobs their health permits. More than three-quarters of a million dollars in federal paycheck protection loans granted to the Y were intended to keep employees on payroll during the pandemic, he said.

The Y did not notify Mullowney about her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act, Oregon Family Medical Leave, Americans With Disabilities Act or Oregon Fair Employment Practices Act, according to the complaint.

The Y informed the state Mullowney had quit her job and later claimed she was unable to work, which terminated Mullowney’s unemployment benefits, according to the complaint.

After being laid off, Mullowney was prohibited from retrieving her intellectual property, including workouts and classes she designed. According to the suit, Mullowney is owed $5,520 in wages for set up and tear down time associated with her classes, for which she was never paid.

A male co-worker was paid for setup time, according to the complaint.

Mullowney had a clean employment record with the Y and no documented complaints.

“I want justice,” Mullowney said. “I have been in the industry a long time, I’m a good trainer and I love training, and I feel that I still have a great deal to contribute.”

This lawsuit is the second discrimination case filed against the Ashland YMCA in eight months. Nkeruwem “Tony” Akpan filed a lawsuit Oct. 24, 2020, seeking $950,000 for 16 alleged violations including discrimination and harassment based on race, retaliation, failure to reasonably accommodate and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Dimitre said both cases represent “egregious examples” of two hard-working employees losing jobs because of their identity.

“It’s a shame that an organization that touts its community-based values is so malicious toward the community to which it belongs,” Dimitre said. “This is just unacceptable conduct by any institution and makes it clear that the YMCA is more interested in retaliation than being a good employer.”

In a letter sent to the YMCA board of directors in November 2020, Mullowney said she witnessed some of the racial discrimination Akpan endured, and herself was subject to “ridicule and name-calling” in a closed-door meeting with Crocker, with no evidence of poor performance to support his “harsh evaluation.”

The meeting and other examples of administrators failing to adequately support staff epitomize an “avoidance of accountability, absence of trust and lack of commitment to the Y employees and the Y community by the new director,” Mullowney said.

“The tone does not reflect the core values of the Y: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility,” she said.

The lawsuit comes as Crocker is set to accept a new role Aug. 3 as director of YMCA Association Resources, a regional position coordinating services for YMCA facilities in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and California. Crocker announced the transition Tuesday.

“Navigating the pandemic was difficult for so many organizations and has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my 33-year Y career,” Crocker said in a message to YMCA staff. “All of you should be proud of how we performed as a team during the last year and a half.”

The YMCA board of directors will conduct a search for a new CEO in the coming months, according to a press release.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.