Aug. 28, 2002, 8:34PM

Disabled tradesman's suit settled

Sheet metal worker who can't hear, speak to get apprenticeship


A man who cannot hear or speak and had been rejected from an apprenticeship program will get a chance to become a journeyman. Thumas Lee was scheduled to begin classes Wednesday night after the Houston Area Sheet Metal Joint Apprenticeship Committee agreed to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC sued the training program in September 2000 after Lee was rejected because he wasn't able to hear or speak. Sheet metal workers must go through a four-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman, the highest skill level, and be hired on a union construction job. Lee, reportedly in his early 40s, makes about $6 an hour as a helper. Union-trained journeymen make about three times more than what helpers earn, said Kathy D. Boutchee, the EEOC lawyer who handled the case. Lee will also receive $30,000 in damages from the apprenticeship school, according to the consent decree approved earlier this week by U.S. District Judge David Hittner. Lee began working as a sheet metal helper in 1996 and applied that same year to the four-year journeyman program. He was rejected and worked three more years as a helper before he reapplied in 1999. Lee found out his application had been rejected because of his disabilities and filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, Boutchee said. The apprenticeship committee believed Lee was a danger to himself and others because of his inability to speak and hear, Boutchee said. As part of the decree, the school formally withdrew its claim that he was such a danger. As a result of the settlement, Lee will become a "classified worker," which will let him bypass some of the more basic classes required for apprentices. Lee will have an opportunity to take whatever classes his employer believes are necessary to elevate him to journeyman sheet metal worker, according to the consent decree. "We're all glad it's been solved to everyone's satisfaction," said Carl Sides, the training director of the apprenticeship program who was preparing to welcome Lee into his math class Wednesday. "I just hope it works out for everyone." The apprenticeship program agreed to delete its requirement that apprentices must be able to speak and hear. The program's training director and committee members must also attend training classes on the Americans with Disabilities Act and hearing-impaired employees in the workplace. Boutchee said she was pleased with the settlement. The school must now do individual assessments on applicants to determine whether they can perform the essential elements of the job instead of deciding arbitrarily, she said.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 30, 2002, 12:29AM Enron to include 36 more in severance deal


Enron expects to add 36 of its former employees to the $28.8 million severance deal reached in bankruptcy court this week, but employee advocates say the number should be as much as 150. The employees were left out of the settlement because they worked for Enron subsidiaries that didn't declare bankruptcy and therefore were not part of the proceedings in which the severance package was negotiated. "It was impossible to address it in the context of the settlement because bankruptcy court does not have jurisdiction," said Damon Silvers, attorney for the AFL-CIO. Enron spokesman Eric Thode said only 36 former employees of Enron subsidiaries had legitimate claims. "If there is a 37-through-whatever number, those folks need to get in touch with the HR department at Enron," Thode said. He said it was unlikely that the number would rise above 36. Thode said all 36 would probably be made part of the severance agreement at a Sept. 12 hearing. But Richard Rathvon, co-chairman of the employment issues committee appointed by the bankruptcy court to safeguard worker interests, said the number was probably closer to 150 based on names he had been provided by former employees. Rod Jordan, chairman of the Severed Enron Employees Coalition, said he had received e-mails from at least 100 employees who had been laid off from Enron subsidiaries that did not declare bankruptcy. The employment committee is expected to meet next week with representatives from the subsidiaries in question to discuss severance, Rathvon said. The AFL-CIO and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition led the effort to make compensation for severed employees an issue in the bankruptcy proceedings. With the announcement Wednesday of a settlement of $13,500 for each of 4,200 employees, both organizations said they were turning their attention to the handful of employees who were overlooked. "Underlying all this is that these people have a just claim for this money," Silvers said. "They were laid off in the same mass firing, and they have a just claim here." William-Paul Thomas, Rainbow Coalition spokesman, said, "If they are willing to fight with us, we will fight for them." Andrew Berdy, who worked for Enron subsidiary Construction Management Services, is among those who got the standard $4,500 severance check, but not an additional $1,100 issued after bankruptcy. Had he been included in the severance settlement, he would have received the $13,500, minus severance money already received. Berdy has no doubt that those laid off from Enron subsidiaries that didn't declare bankruptcy should get the same severance. "This is all obfuscation and legalese," he said. "I don't care if I don't get a dime, but there are people out there who really need the money." Mike Haney, who was director of Enron's E-Commerce, said he worked in the Enron building with other employees who are part of the severance agreement. "I definitely felt like I was in the mainstream of what Enron was doing," Haney said.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 29, 2002, 10:42PM

Board OKs plan to privatize food services, but not engineering


Harris County Hospital District board members voted Thursday to consider farming out the district's food services to a private company but rejected a plan to privatize engineering services. District administrators argued that privatization would save taxpayers $14 million over five years, but that 26 jobs in engineering and six in food service would be cut. Employees and union officials opposed the plan, telling board members that privatization doesn't work and that they hadn't been allowed to fix problems in their departments. David Lopez, the district's chief operating officer, conceded that engineering needed to be better equipped. He also praised the district's food service employees, but he and district president John Guest said privatization would lead to better service. Guest and Lopez had proposed hiring Sodexho Services to handle the district's engineering needs and Morrision Healthcare Food Service to handle its food service. The contracts would have cost $47.9 million over five years, and the companies had agreed to hire the bulk of the district's employees and to honor their wages and benefits. But employees didn't buy that, and they urged the board to reconsider the contracts. After debate, the board killed the plan to privatize the district's engineering, but approved going ahead with contract negotiations on food services.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle