AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Human Rights Commission voted 3-1 on Monday to issue “right to sue” letters to two Bath Iron Works employees who claimed the company had discriminated against them based on their disabilities, Amy Snierson, executive director of the commission, said in an email.
Commissioner John Norman opposed the motion, she said.
The letters mean the two employees have completed the obligatory 180-day commission process and have chosen to end the complaint process through the commission and instead pursue legal action.
Rodney Kates of Lewiston and Richard Roberts of Lisbon Falls were among 18 preservation technicians, or “grinders,” who filed complaints against BIW alleging the company discriminated against them during a 2012 layoff.
In October, the commission voted unanimously to dismiss 14 of the complaints after a commission investigator found no reasonable grounds that the shipyard had discriminated against the workers.
A final party in the claim, Charles Dorr of Sidney, reported to the commission that he and the shipyard had settled, Snierson said in October.
Kates alleged that BIW discriminated against him based on his age, his disability, as well as in denying him reasonable accommodation for his disability, as required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Roberts alleged discrimination based on age and physical disability.
Victoria Ternig, chief investigator for the commission, recommended the commission find reasonable grounds to support two of three complaints by Kates — that he was discriminated against based on his physical disability and by BIW failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for that disability.
She recommended the commission find reasonable grounds to support Roberts’ claims of discrimination based on his disability.
A phone call to attorney Jeffrey Young, who represents Kates and Roberts, was not immediately returned Monday.
BIW spokesman Matt Wickenheiser said the company had no comment.
According to Ternig’s reports, BIW announced in early November 2012 that it would lay off 24 preservation technicians whose disabilities — ranging from degenerative disc disease to a history of various surgeries — left them unable to grind material and prohibited them from working in confined spaces, crawling and lifting more than 25 pounds.
All 24 were instead transferred to different positions in which they received the same pay but were unable to earn overtime, according to the complaints.
In October 2013, all 24 were returned to their original positions.
BIW argued that grinding and other tasks are essential functions of the preservation technician position, and that the contract between the shipyard and machinists union outlines 30 specific tasks including “the largest component,” grinding.
The company said that in October 2012, the shipyard’s focus shifted to a new ship that required “considerably more surface treatment [grinding] and production painting work,” a sharp reduction in the amount of less-strenuous work and a “surge” in demand for work requiring pneumatic tools and respirators.