Randi Kirshbaum Photo courtesy of Randi Kirshbaum

Longtime Portland radio personality Randi Kirshbaum said she was fired Monday for refusing to return to her office, despite her doctor’s explanation of the danger COVID-19 poses to her health.

Her employer says Kirshbaum was laid off because she didn’t meet the terms of an agreement made when she began working from home six weeks ago.

Kirshbaum, who had been on Portland’s airwaves for 38 years, was working for the Portland Radio Group as program manager for WCLZ and Coast 93.1, and was on-air host for WCLZ and country station WPOR. She said she was fired during an online meeting with officials from Michigan-based Saga Communications, Portland Radio Group’s parent company.

Kirshbaum said she had been working remotely from her Scarborough home for the past six weeks, doing her shows from there and managing other station staff. Kirshbaum requested to work remotely at the recommendation of her physician, Dr. Allyson Howe, because of Kirshbaum’s risk of contracting pulmonary fibrosis. That disease causes serious lung damage and can be triggered by respiratory ailments like COVID-19, Kirshbaum said her doctor told Saga. Kirshbaum said her mother died of the lung disease.

“They decided for some inexplicable reason that I needed to come back, even though I’ve been able to do everything I need to do from home,” said Kirshbaum. “It was shocking, because this (pandemic) is a fluid situation. Two weeks from now, it could all be different.”

Chris Forgy, senior vice president of operations for Saga, said Monday that Kirshbaum was let go because she did not follow the terms she agreed to for working remotely. Forgy said when Kirshbaum started working remotely she had agreed that her situation would be assessed every two weeks to see if the arrangement was working, and that “it would be Saga’s decision” as to when Kirshbaum should come back to work. He said she was asked to come back to work Monday, as other company workers were returning to the South Portland office as well.

When Kirshbaum refused to come back Monday, the company “placed her on layoff,” Forgy said. He took issue with the word “terminated,” which Kirshbaum had used on her Facebook page and in an email to co-workers. Forgy said being laid off meant Kirshbaum might be brought back by the company at some point, and that the company will continue to pay her health care. Kirshbaum said the company is paying her health care for six months, but she got no indication she’d be brought back.

“She’s completely uncomfortable coming back to the office, and it’s virtually impossible for her to be a supervisor and not come back,” Forgy said during a phone interview Monday. “We need to have leadership in the building.”

Kirshbaum said she never agreed that the end date of her remote working arrangement would be decided by Saga, and that if she was asked to come back before she felt safe other “solutions” would be sought, including extending her arrangement or making changes to the station’s South Portland offices. Kirshbaum said the meeting on Monday included her doctor repeating the assertion of the danger posed to Kirshbaum if she contracts COVID-19.

After the meeting, she went on Facebook to let her listeners know what had happened.

“Saga gave me an ultimatum, saying that if I did not show up to the office today, I would no longer be employed. I love my job, but I’m not willing to die for it,” she wrote.

Kirshbaum said she has no immediate plans to try to work in radio, or anywhere else. She wouldn’t say whether she is considering legal action. She plans to continue to stay home and quarantine because of her health concerns. She said even her adult children do not come into her home to visit her.

David G. Webbert, a partner in the Maine-based firm of Johnson, Webbert & Young, specializes in employment litigation. In an interview Monday night, Webbert said Kirshbaum may have a legitimate claim for wrongful termination under the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act.

Under the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, no employer may discharge an employee who, acting in good faith, refuses to engage in an activity that would expose them to risks of serious injury or death, said Webbert, who represented former Maine House Speaker Mark Eves in his dispute with former Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

The disabilities and human rights acts also prohibit employers from discharging someone for requesting a reasonable accommodation for a disability, he said. The same laws apply to a layoff action even when an employer leaves open the possibility that an employee could be brought back, Webbert said.

“This jumps out as a sympathetic case from both a legal and human viewpoint,” Webbert said. “She has proven that she can work remotely and she has a scientific argument for why her risk requires a temporary reasonable accommodation.”

Webbert expects that similar cases, pitting employers against employees who feel uncomfortable about contracting COVID-19, will arise as the state’s economy reopens and businesses start bringing workers back.

“It’s going to come up a lot, but I’m hopeful that employers will think it through and make good decisions. I give Randi credit for going public with this,” Webbert said.

Employees who are reluctant to return to work but don’t have a medical condition that might place them at high risk would have to prove their employer was failing to take steps to protect them and had created an unsafe workplace, Webbert said.

Kirshbaum grew up in Minnesota, where she started on radio as a teenager, and worked at WBCN in Boston, among other places, before coming to work in Portland. She said it was “heartbreaking” to think her 50 years in radio would end this way.

Kirshbaum is at least the third Portland Radio Group personality to be fired in recent months. WGAN weekend host John McDonald was fired in April after taking some time off from his show partly because of his concerns about coming into the station during the pandemic. Ken Altshuler, who was co-host of WGAN’s weekday morning news and talk show, was fired March 27 after some 18 years. Altshuler said he was told his dismissal was part of “some financial restructuring” at the AM station.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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