A well-known Portland radio personality who was let go this week for refusing to return to her employer’s office has hired a lawyer in a bid to get her job back.

Randi Kirshbaum Photo courtesy of Randi Kirshbaum

Randi Kirshbaum, who had been working remotely from her home in Scarborough for six weeks, has hired employment lawyer David Webbert. Kirshbaum, who worked in Portland radio for 38 years, was employed by the Portland Radio Group as program manager for WCLZ and Coast 93.1, and was an on-air host for WCLZ and country station WPOR.

Webbert said Thursday that he intends to file a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, the first required step in the process. The complaint will allege that Michigan-based Saga Communications, parent company of Portland Radio Group, violated the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, the Maine Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Those three laws all require Randi to start her case by filing a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission,” Webbert said in an email. “After waiting the mandatory 180 days, we can then file suit in court in Portland.”

Webbert said that once his client receives her personnel file from Saga Communications he will file a discrimination complaint with the rights commission. Saga has 10 days from May 18 to respond to Kirshbaum’s request for her personnel files. Webbert said it would probably take another two to three weeks after the file is received to file the complaint.

Webbert said the complaint will detail the acts of illegal discrimination alleged by his client including: firing Kirshbaum for making a request for a reasonable accommodation for her disability and denying her reasonable accommodation for her disability by not allowing her to temporarily continue working remotely.

On Monday, Kirshbaum said she was fired for refusing to report to work at her office. Kirshbaum said her physician, Dr. Allyson Howe, advised her to work remotely, citing the risk of contracting pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes serious lung damage and can be triggered by respiratory ailments such as COVID-19. Kirshbaum said her mother died of the disease.

Webbert said his client asserts that if she returned to the office it would be “virtually impossible to maintain social distancing in her workspace,” given the small size of her office, studio, hallways, common areas and a single women’s bathroom.

Chris Forgy, senior vice president of operations for Saga, reiterated Thursday the company’s contention that it had the authority to lay off Kirshbaum based on terms of a temporary remote work agreement dated April 8.

The agreement, which was signed by Kirshbaum and provided to the Press Herald by Forgy, states that her work-from-home arrangement would be re-evaluated every two weeks. Forgy said Kirshbaum was asked to return to Portland Radio Group’s offices in South Portland on Monday, as other employees were.

“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 in an interview this week. “We need to have leadership in the building.”

In an email dated May 18 that was sent to Portland Radio Group employees, Forgy states, “I am sending this email because we wanted to set the record straight about what actually happened in Randi’s situation. Today, when Randi did not report to work as requested, we gave her notice that she was being placed on layoff. We did not terminate her for health reasons. In fact we didn’t terminate her at all.”

After being informed Thursday that Kirshbaum had hired a lawyer, Forgy said he would stand by the terms of the remote work agreement.

Webbert took issue with Saga Communication’s position in a statement Thursday. Webbert said the company had no reason to dismiss her because she has proven she can successfully do her job from home.

“Our reaction to Chris Forgy’s position is that represents corporate arrogance at its worst,” Webbert said. “Saga is wrong to think it can force an employee to risk her life on its say so even when her doctor disagrees and it (Saga) has no medical expert at all.

“Saga thinks they are above the law and that workers like Randi have no rights unless Saga agrees. And they are wrong about that. Employees in Maine do have basic human rights including the right not to die because their employer wants them to do something that is unsafe,” Webbert said. “In short, the work from home agreement does not trump Randi’s basic human rights and does not give Saga the absolute right to make life-and-death decisions for her.”

Contacted at home Thursday, Kirshbaum said she had been overwhelmed by support from listeners who have heard her on the radio for decades. She said it’s unfortunate that it took being fired to make her realize how much she was loved and respected by her fans.

“I am so grateful. I feel so blessed to have such a loyal following of listeners,” Kirshbaum said.

Kirshbaum said she has spent the week trying to respond to a flood of phone calls, emails and posts on social media from people sympathizing with her decision not to return to work.

“This June will mark my 50th anniversary in radio. What I’ve loved most about this business is that you are able to connect with listeners one to one,” Kirshbaum wrote on her Facebook page. “Nothing fills my heart more than a listener telling me they feel as though I am their friend. Plus, with radio as a platform, I’ve been able to do so much good in the community. I’ve always felt as though this job is about being of service. I am heartbroken to have it end this way.”

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