PORTLAND, Maine — Editor's Note: The above video aired in May.
Randi Kirshbaum, a DJ and manager at WPOR and WCLZ radio in Portland for 38 years, has filed an employment discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against her former employer.
Kirshbaum, 66, was fired in May for refusing to return to the office on her doctor’s recommendation amid coronavirus concerns.
Kirshbaum's mother died from Pulmonary Fibrosis, a disease for which Kirshbaum says she is genetically predisposed. She has a one in three chance of getting it. The disease is triggered by a serious respiratory virus.
"If I get COVID-19, there is a very good chance that it would trigger pulmonary fibrosis, and I would have two to five years to live," Kirshbaum told NEWS CENTER Maine in May shortly after her termination.
But Kirshbaum’s employer, Saga Communications out of Michigan, decided that it needed what senior Vice President Chris Forgy called "leadership in the building", and told Kirshbaum that if she did not go back to the office, she would be terminated, as per an agreement they signed prior to Kirshbaum beginning to work from home. Kirshbaum said her doctor told her she needed to continue working from home to reduce her exposure to COVID-19.
Forgy said he and his company believe it is, "virtually impossible to lead a team from someplace other than where your team is.”
“So we had no choice but to lay her off," Forgy said in May. He went on to say that by violating an agreement to come back when asked, Kirshbaum was "self-terminated."
Kirshbaum’s complaint against Saga Communications, Forgy, and others, was filed on Friday. Kirshbaum says her age and sex were contributing factors in the decision to terminate her employment.
In the complaint, Kirshbaum notes Forgy’s statements he made to various media outlets following her termination that you can’t lead “from a bedroom in your slippers,” is “consistent with a sexist attitude ingrained at the top of Saga.”
“Upon information and belief, this ‘slippers’ comment was originally made by CEO [Ed] Christian to VP Forgy, who repeated it to the media,” Kirshbaum’s complaint said. “This ‘bedroom in your slippers’ derogatory comment about my working from home is consistent with a sexist attitude ingrained at the top of Saga, including the sexist stereotype that women are inherently weaker leaders than men.”
According to Kirshbaum’s lawyer, David Webbert, the complaint also details why she is considered high-risk, and the events leading up to her ultimate termination.
The complaint explains that at age 66, Kirshbaum is in a high-risk category of dying or suffering serious injury from COVID-19 “both because having COVID-19, a viral infection, would significantly increase my already high risk of developing a fatal disease that runs in my family and because my family health condition and age significantly increase my risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19.”
Kirshbaum says despite her favorable performance reviews, strong support and loyalty of listeners, as well as being able to effectively work from home from April to May 17, she was "abruptly fired from my radio job of 38 years when I refused to defy my doctor's orders and risk my life by appearing in-person at work in the midst of this deadly global pandemic."
Kirshbaum says the then-general manager of the station, Bob Adams, who was also terminated in June, told her that she was the "best work-from-home-er" he ever had.
"Saga CEO Ed Christian himself manages employees at Saga’s headquarters in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, while working remotely six months out of the year in Sarasota, Florida," she said in the complaint.
“In terminating my employment, Saga unlawfully retaliated against me for requesting and taking a reasonable accommodation for my disability,” the complaint says. “Saga also unlawfully retaliated against me for reporting what I reasonably believed was a violation of the Governor's Executive Orders regarding COVID-19 and a practice that would put my health and safety at risk and for refusing to carry out a directive to engage in an activity that would expose me to a condition that would result in serious injury or death, after having sought and being unable to obtain a corrective to that condition from Saga, when it refused to allow me to work from home and when it terminated my employment.”
The complaint also notes that since March—when the pandemic reached Maine—Saga has fired at least eight full-time employees over age 50, and two employees over the age of 50 have resigned from the Portland Radio Group.
After Adams' firing, Kirshbaum and her lawyer said, "Its abrupt termination, without cause, of Bob Adams further proves that Saga’s excuse for firing Randy was a coverup for its pattern of unlawful discrimination. Numerous radio companies continue to have their managers work remotely including CBS, I Heart Radio; Cumulus, Entercom, Hubbard, and Radio One.”
Saga Communications did not immediately respond to NEWS CENTER Maine's request for comment.