by Valerie Verkamp
Two former female employees of Challenge Manufacturing near KCI in Platte County have filed separate and distinct employee discrimination lawsuits alleging they were subjected to unlawful discrimination in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Nancy Guerrero of Kansas City, Kan., and Samantha Flynn of Kansas City filed a lawsuit in Platte County after receiving right-to-sue letters from the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.
Plaintiff Samantha Flynn, 30, alleges in June 2015 multiple employees experienced an adverse health problem due to a lack of ventilation inside deconstruct and plasma booths where workers welded metals.
“Cutting through steel, hardened steel, and galvanized steel in the deconstruct booths and plasma booths releases harmful chemicals, particles, and vapors that create a workplace hazard and create a health risk for people breathing the air in close proximity to where the cutting is being performed,” alleges the plaintiff's attorney Kenneth Kinney in the court filing.
Flynn contends the booths were not adequately ventilated causing members of her team to become dizzy, lightheaded and sweaty. One man was allegedly transported to the hospital after he fainted on the job.
When Flynn reported the incidents to her superiors, she was allegedly told her team members should “stop being pussies” and “man-up.”
Flynn then took her complaint to a corporate employee visiting the Kansas City plant. Based upon his assessment, the ventilation fans had been installed backwards, causing them to work improperly. He allegedly advised the maintenance team to reinstall the fans and provide respirators to the employees to wear while they performed their work.
According to court documents, the corporate employee also limited the hours that workers spend inside the deconstruct booths to two per day to comply with OSHA regulations and corporate policies that place restrictions on how long workers are exposed to excessive noise levels in the booths.
Upon the corporate employee's departure, engineering manager Christopher Hinman allegedly insisted her team work beyond the two-hour limit and neither provided respirators nor reinstalled the fans.
As temperatures soared in July 2015, Flynn asked the plant manager and the maintenance manager to leave the bay doors open and allow fresh air to infiltrate her team's work area. They allegedly denied her request.
Flynn once again took her concern to corporate. When Flynn received a key to the bay doors in August, Paul Joiner, a maintenance supervisor, allegedly urged her not to involve corporate again or he would “have” her job, the lawsuit states.
Flynn tried to file a formal complaint with human resources, but was redirected to speak with the plant manager, according to the court filing.
The lawsuit alleges a wide variety of instances where department heads allegedly failed to act or condoned a hostile work environment.
In August, Flynn noticed leaks in the plant's sprinkler system and reported the problem to the engineering manager, maintenance supervisor, and the plant manager. The lawsuit alleges the leaks were not fixed.
Flynn took a secondary job as a welding instructor working evenings from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. When her supervisor Hinman was told about her second job, he allegedly changed Flynn's work schedule so that it would conflict with her teaching position, the suit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, her work schedule returned to normal only after Flynn involved human resources. But this allegedly did not sit well with Hinman. He allegedly made a threatening comment by mentioning she should not have turned to human resources for recourse.
He then allegedly spent a disproportionate amount of time following Flynn around the warehouse.
“His change in behavior was extreme enough that a co-worker mentioned it to plaintiff and said Hinman was stalking her,” alleges the lawsuit.
To rectify the situation, Flynn attempted to file a report with human resources and asked to be transferred to another department. Both requests were denied, states the lawsuit.
Briefly following her complaint, Gilda Hyde, a human resource employee, allegedly told Flynn a “girl your size” should not wear leggings to the workplace.
Just shy of her year anniversary at Challenge, Flynn gave human resources a two-week notice and requested that her departure be kept confidential. Hinman allegedly fired Flynn the following day.
The suit alleges Flynn was mistreated due to her sex. Shortly after coming on-board, Hinman disclosed that he didn't want to supervise a woman, the lawsuit alleges.
His alleged discontent for working with female employees was also demonstrated when Flynn hired a female employee to work on her team. Hinman allegedly questioned whether a female employee could adequately do the job. Flynn says she was told not to hire another female.
The lawsuit also holds the human resource manager accountable, stating Hyde “aided and abetted,” or “incited sex discrimination” by allegedly refusing to allow Flynn to make an official complaint.
Flynn is seeking compensatory and punitive damages due to the mistreatment she experienced during the working environment.
In an answer filed with the court, Challenge Manufacturing denies that the defendants listed in the lawsuit violated any law. The Michigan-based automotive manufacturer denies the allegations brought forth in the lawsuit, including that the fans inside the plasma booths were put on backwards and that employees were required to work above and beyond the two-hour maximum.
In regard to the allegation that an employee was hospitalized due to a lack of ventilation, the defendants acknowledge a male employee was transported to the emergency room, but argue it was not due to inadequate ventilation inside a booth.
The company acknowledges that Flynn hired a female employee, but denies that a company employee warned her against hiring a female employee.
Similarly, 33-year-old Nancy Guerrero filed a lawsuit on March 29 alleging at least two male superiors acted in a discriminatory manner toward pregnant employees by failing to provide accommodations to Guerrero and dismissing her without a legitimate cause.
Guerrero started at Challenge as a temporary worker placed by Adecco in Nov 2015. She gained full-time permanent status with Challenge in May 2016. When Guerrero accepted the position with Challenge, she conveyed to Adecco that she would not be able to work weekends.
While attending orientation, Guerrero was told that employees were occasionally scheduled weekends. Guerrero reiterated that she would not be able to work weekends and asked if it would pose a problem.
Ronald Florez, a human resource employee, allegedly told her weekend shifts were for employees who voluntarily chose to work the weekend shift and employees were not adversely effected for turning down the shift.
In May 2016, the lawsuit states Guerrero became pregnant and provided her employer with a doctor's notice that limited the hours she could work to 40 hours a week.
Obeying her doctor's orders, Guerrero did not work weekend shifts, which would have exceeded her 40-hour limit. But Guerrero was allegedly warned by a co-worker that corrective action would be taken in the form of additional attendance points. Concerned she would be adversely effected for not working the weekend, Guerrero called her employer's absence hotline to confirm she would not be able to work.
When she returned to work Monday, Guerrero was allegedly approached by Brad Taylor and questioned why she failed to show up to work over the weekend. According to the lawsuit, she informed Taylor she was on work restrictions and pointed to the child she carried inside her belly. Taylor allegedly said, “I don't care,” before walking away.
Guerrero discovered that additional attendance points, which constituted a written warning and a two-day suspension, had been assessed against her for failing to work the weekend shift.
When she told Florez about the corrective action against her, he agreed it was unfair and suggested she raise her concern to Taylor, who applied the points.
According to the lawsuit, before Guerrero had an opportunity to speak with Taylor to contest the points, she was terminated for her attendance points. When she asked for documentation of her points, Florez allegedly told her she would be charged $5 for the 3-page log.
Court documents allege Taylor assessed points against Guerrero for not working two consecutive weekends. The lawsuit claims Taylor falsely denies receiving her work restriction letter.
According to the lawsuit, following her termination from Challenge, Guerrero contacted human resources to dispute her firing, but company officials never returned her call.
The allegations raised in the civil lawsuits have not yet been proven. Both sides will likely be sworn to tell the truth in future depositions.
Challenge Manufacturing was in the news in February when about 200 union members went on strike seeking better wages, benefits and fairer practices in a dispute that was settled a few weeks later.
Challenge’s production of automotive parts is supplied to the General Motors’ Fairfax Assembly Plant, where Chevy Malibus are assembled.
Challenge first began operations in Kansas City in Platte County in December of 2015. It was the culmination of many agencies bringing together in what was described as an effort “to bring good paying jobs to the area.” Agencies involved in the effort to bring Challenge to KC were the Kansas City EDC, Platte County EDC, the Missouri Partnership and the Kansas City Area Development Council.
City officials approved the issuance of up to $56 million in industrial revenue bonds to help the company finance the purchase and installation of heavy equipment and machinery for the plant.