AUGUSTA — A local recycling business might have unlawfully discriminated against one of its employees when its owner made crude, degrading jokes about the man’s sexuality and intelligence, a state agency found on Monday morning.

In a complaint filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission, the man, Andre Vanpoelvoorde of Augusta, claimed that the owner of Neighborhood Redemption Center, a business on West River Road, made comments suggesting that he was gay and a “(expletive) moron” while he was employed there as a cashier, janitor and counter-person.

The stress resulting from those comments created serious health problems for Vanpoelvoorde, which in turn led to his being effectively terminated from his job, he alleged in the complaint.

Representatives for Neighborhood Redemption denied those allegations, arguing that Vanpoelvoorde never demonstrated an ability to perform his job independently despite the business’ attempts to retrain him, according to a report produced by an investigator for the Maine Human Rights Commission.

They also characterized the crude comments as “gallows humor” that wasn’t meant to single out Vanpoelvoorde, and suggested he “became so hypersensitive he began to imagine he was the target of workplace jokes,” according to the report.

But on Monday, the five members of the Maine Human Rights Commission unanimously found there were reasonable grounds to believe one of Vanpoelvoorde’s complaints: that Neighborhood Redemption discriminated against him “on the basis of his sex/sexual orientation and disability by subjecting him to a hostile work environment, including by constructively discharging him.”

Vanpoelvoorde also alleged that Neighborhood Redemption retaliated against him after he complained about the crude comments, but the commission found no reasonable grounds to believe that complaint.

The owner of Neighborhood Redemption, Roger Caron, didn’t attend the monthly meeting, which was held at the Senator Inn. When reached by phone, he declined to comment on the decisions or the complaints.

“I have nothing to say at this time,” he said.

An attorney for Vanpoelvoorde, Aaron Rowden, said his client “was very relieved that the commission upheld the finding (of discrimination). He thinks the investigator did a good job getting to the bottom of the set of facts, and he was very grateful for the outcome.”

The report, by investigator Jenn Corey, was the basis for the commission’s decision on Monday morning, which was made following very little discussion.

According to the report, Vanpoelvoorde struggled to work with numbers from the time he was hired by Neighborhood Redemption in fall 2014. In 2015, he was sent home multiple times because of counting errors, the report found, and the business also provided extra training to him.

In his own complaints, Vanpoelvoorde said that the owner of the business, Caron, called him “retarded” and asked, “Are you (expletive) stupid?”

While the business acknowledged that Caron made some of those statements, it also suggested that Caron made them just as frequently with other employees, the report said.

The report did not identify Vanpoelvoorde’s sexual orientation, but described the lewd remarks that Caron allegedly made about it on occasion, using vulgar terms to suggest he might be gay. Representatives for Neighborhood Redemption told the investigator those comments were meant as jokes.

Both parties agreed that other employees “were treated in a similar manner” by Caron, according to the report, but “The record does not show that anyone else complained about the work environment.”

Caron’s son, who also works at Neighborhood Redemption, told the investigator that he offered to separate his father and Vanpoelvoorde into different shifts.

Still, the comments by Caron worsened over time, Vanpoelvoorde alleged, and in the winter of 2016, the employee had to take some time off, first because his dog died and he was upset, then because he was feeling “anxious about work” and was hospitalized for several days.

When Vanpoelvoorde returned to Neighborhood Redemption to explain that he had been in the hospital and discuss his absences, he was “advised (that) it might not be a good idea for him to return to work, given the working conditions,” according to the report.

“Both sides” agreed that Vanpoelvoorde received that advice, the report noted.

With its finding on Monday morning, the Maine Human Rights Commission is now required to invite both sides together to see if they can resolve their dispute in a process known as conciliation, said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the commission.

If the parties can’t come to an agreement, they’ll then have the opportunity to file a formal legal complaint. At the same time, the commission can also file its own legal complaint in court, Sneirson said.

Rowden declined to identify specific conditions that his client, Vanpoelvoorde, will be seeking from Neighborhood Redemption.

By entering conciliation, Vanpoelvoorde hopes to resolve his complaint “in a way that’s just with respect to him and others who may have experienced discrimination in the workplace from the same employer,” Rowden said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker