BAR HARBOR, Maine — A Maine Human Rights Commission investigator has found reasonable grounds to believe Geddy’s Down Under Gift Shop discriminated against a college student with cerebral palsy. The student worked there for less than two weeks before a manager suddenly terminated his employment.
The college student, who lives in Hancock, was hired to work as a retail sales clerk at the gift shop in mid-May 2013. He was filling in paperwork on his first day at the job when the store manager looked at him and said that there was “something wrong with his hand,” and that she wasn’t sure he could do the folding required by the job, Investigator Michele Dion wrote.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that can affect body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“[He] replied that he had mild cerebral palsy on his left side and that he didn’t think the job would be a problem. He stated that he would let her know if there was something he was unable to do,” Dion wrote. “Store manager then stated that she wasn’t sure that he could handle the work and that she would have to talk to the owner.”
The manager did begin to train the college student. During the nine days he was employed at Geddy’s, she repeatedly referred to his hand and reminded him that she wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep on working there. She also allegedly told him about other places she thought were hiring, even offering to call one of the employers to see if she could get him a job somewhere else, Dion wrote.
“He declined and said he wanted to work at Geddy’s and that he was confident that he could handle the work,” she wrote, adding that the store manager apparently told the student that his performance at the gift shop went above and beyond what was expected.
However, on May 26, 2013, the manager abruptly terminated his employment “because of his hand,” the student told Dion.
Geddy’s attorney Thad Zmistowski said that the student was laid off because of the economic slowdown that took place in Bar Harbor after the federal sequestration delayed the opening of Acadia National Park by one month, to May 19. The effect of the slowdown caused the restaurant and store to cut a position at the gift shop in May, Zmistowski told Dion. According to the attorney, the student was laid off because he was the most recent hire — not because of his cerebral palsy.
The student, however, disagreed with this assertion.
“At no time was he told that he was simply being laid off, and that he would be called back if business increased,” Dion wrote. “He said the store manager wanted to hug him, but that he didn’t accept the hug — he felt tears coming on — he simply walked away. As he drove home, he stated that he was forced to pull over to the side of the road because he was concerned about the danger of driving under those circumstances, since he was crying.”
When the student returned to the store three days later to pick up his final paycheck, he saw a new employee being trained to do the job he had been doing.
According to Zmistowski, the student’s father called the store manager and “berated” her on the afternoon of the layoff, a call which apparently reduced the woman to tears. At that point, the owner of the gift shop decided that the store would have nothing more to do with the student and would not let him know that they were hiring again. Additionally, the gift shop that summer employed two other people who were disabled and made accommodations for them, the attorney said.
Dion wrote that the delayed opening of the national park seemed to be a “pretextual” explanation of why the student was let go. She said that he began work two days before the park’s opening, and that his hire ought to have coincided with the beginning of an increase in tourism, not a decrease. She also wrote that she saw no obvious issues with his hand when she met with the student.
The Maine Human Rights Commission will hear the case on Nov. 17.