Woman says she was fired due to sexual orientation

A woman who says that a Huntington employer harassed her and fired her after finding out her sexual orientation has retained a lawyer and is asking to be reinstated.

Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT rights advocacy organization, and Saad Dixon Law Offices, a Huntington-based firm, announced through a Facebook Live video Tuesday afternoon that Abraham Saad, an employment law attorney, was sending a letter to Special Metals Corp. in Huntington, demanding that Whittney Handley, a former employee, be reinstated and be provided back pay.

The letter states that Handley, who was a crane operator and laborer for Special Metals, began working for the company in January of 2016, and that Dan Noble became her supervisor in March.

“Mr. Noble discriminated against Ms. Handley because she is a lesbian and a woman” in violation of a Huntington city ordinance, the letter states. “He subjected her to a hostile work environment with his severe and pervasive comments. He retaliated against her because of who she is.”

Handley said during the video she was two weeks away from being eligible to join the union when Noble fired her at about 9:30 p.m. on June 9, 2016, a few hours after she had started her shift. She said she had been working overtime in order to get enough hours to join the union.

“I thought he was going to stick me on a new task,” she said. “He’d done this many times before, but he didn’t. He walked me through the plant past all my co-workers and told me ‘we’re letting you go.’ He didn’t give me any explanation.”

She said Noble found out about her sexual orientation a few months prior.

“For the first week I worked under him, he treated me the same as anyone else,” she said. “He had even told me he was going to write a letter to ... his supervisor about what a great job I was doing. But when he discovered what my sexual orientation was, his attitude toward me changed drastically to the point of harassment.”

The letter describes harassment based on both gender and sexual orientation (including calling her “butch” and “amazon”). He also told her he would “never vote for Hillary because she is for the gays and queers,” the letter states.

“I didn’t report my supervisor’s harassment then because I wanted to keep my job,” she said during the video. “I loved my job, and I worked hard at it and want it back.”

The letter also alleges Noble gave training opportunities to employees with less seniority, and required her to perform janitorial tasks that were not part of her job description but would be considered more feminine tasks.

“Finally, Mr. Noble attempted to force Ms. Handley to work in violation of an employee handbook rule (12-day rule),” the letter states. “When she informed him it was in violation of the rule, he terminated her for ‘insubordination.’”

According to the company’s website, the Huntington location of Special Metals is one of the biggest nickel alloy production facilities in the world. Calls to the general manager’s office in Huntington and the communications office of Precision Castparts, its Portland, Oregon-based parent company, were not returned Tuesday afternoon. The letter, which was to be sent Tuesday, was to be Saad’s first contact with the company.

West Virginia’s Human Rights Act, which includes protections for people who experience discrimination in employment, does not extend to LGBT West Virginians. But Huntington is one of 10 cities in West Virginia covered by a city ordinance that extends protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, so companies can be sued for not abiding by the ordinance.

Fairness West Virginia helped Handley find a lawyer.

“As more and more cities began to rise to fairness, we realized that we needed to make sure the LGBT community had confidence in these laws; that these were not merely symbolic, that these laws would actually protect them,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, “And so now this is basically a message to the community, to everyone, that Fairness West Virginia is here to help you if you find yourself to be the victim of discrimination in any of these 11 communities that now protect against such discrimination, but it’s also a message to those communities out there and those people out there who would like to get their city, get their community, get their town to adopt an LGBT nondiscrimination law because this is what can happen if there is a law in place.”

Ten cities have ordinances that protect the LGBT community. Morgantown, which Fairness West Virginia typically counts as an LGBT-inclusive city, does not have an ordinance. It passed a resolution that the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT rights organization, has said means it doesn’t adequately protect residents.

“In this case, we believe that discrimination took place and we’re going to give the company an opportunity to correct that action before a lawsuit is required,” Saad said during the video. “If they do not correct that action, then we will proceed to go through the courts.”

Saad, Schneider and Handley took no live questions, but in a follow-up interview, Schneider said he is “very confident” sexual orientation was the reason for the dismissal, noting that the supervisor did not change his treatment toward Handley until he knew her sexual orientation, and that the derogatory names were “based on her sexual orientation.”

He said Handley would not be made available for a follow-up interview.

“She has already made a statement to the press,” he said. “I think it’s very comprehensive. We don’t want to overwhelm our client. She’s not used to talking to the press. She’s not doing this for any recognition or attention. She’s doing this because she’s been harmed in a very real way.”

Saad, in another interview following the news conference, said Handley is currently employed but is making less than she made at Special Metals. He also said that he sees two separate human rights claims in the case — discrimination based on gender, which would fall under the state Human Rights Act, and discrimination based on sexual orientation, which would fall under the city ordinance.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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