Court rules Northampton social worker can continue to work remotely 

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Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2020 11:33:06 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A Northampton social worker mandated to return to in-person work by their employer won a preliminary injunction allowing that employee to continue to work remotely because of their increased risk for severe COVID-19 infection.

On Wednesday, a magistrate judge in U.S. District Court in Springfield ruled that Northampton-based behavioral health agency Clinical and Support Options Inc. (CSO) cannot force employee Gabriel Peeples to return to the office, and that Peeples may work remotely due to the pandemic for at least the next 60 days.

Peeples, who has asthma, “was mandated to return to work or risk losing their job,” according to Peeples’ attorneys, Douglas B. Mishkin and Christa Douaihy. This order went against a recommendation by Peeples’ doctor, the attorneys said, who advised that Peeples should not return to in-person work due to their heightened risk.

Court Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson ruled that CSO did not conduct an individualized assessment on Peeples’ request for reasonable accommodations, which is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Additionally, Robertson “found that Peeples’ work is in the public interest and advances public health, mitigating in favor of this unusual preliminary injunction,” the attorneys said.

CSO allowed Peeples to work remotely for several months, said Douaihy, but ordered them to return to the office in July. At work, Peeples “had to wear a respiratory mask continuously in the office in fear of contracting COVID-19,” according to the attorneys.

Geoffrey Oldmixon, associate vice president of marketing and development for CSO, said that the organization needed to balance obligations to the safety of its employees and clients.

CSO serves “clients in crisis or vulnerable positions” and must remain accessible, Oldmixon said. “For some people,” he added, “that means face-to-face interactions when telehealth won’t work.”

But Peeples’ attorneys argued that the shift to in-person work also negatively impacted Peeples’ clients, who “responded better to virtual therapy while teleworking than to virtual therapy while wearing masks in the office,” the attorneys said. The masks “make it hard to show empathy and create trust” in therapy, they added.

CSO continues to conduct about 75% of its services remotely, Oldmixon said. Employees are chosen to return to the office based on several factors, such as their location, job role and client base.

The organization has “invested heavily” in safety measures for those who must return to work, Oldmixon said, providing equipment such as KN95 masks for those who need them, an HVAC ventilation system, and enacting other social distancing and sanitation measures.

Oldmixson said that the organization will “abide by any decisions going forward, and we’re going to abide by Gabriel Peeples’ needs.” The employer “never thought about terminating” Peeples from their position, Oldmixon added.

Douaihy said that Peeples was never directly threatened with being let go, but they were not offered any alternatives to returning to the office other than taking personal leave.

Douaihy said that the case is significant for many workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I think a lot of workers are asking these questions, like what are their rights during the pandemic?” Douaihy said. “I think this decision is helpful for both employers and workers to be clear that we have the same procedural rights that we did before.”

The case will continue with a status conference in the coming weeks.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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