Ex-Energy Northwest security guard files discrimination lawsuit

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 13, 2013 

RICHLAND -- A former security guard at Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant at Richland has filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination because she was a woman.

Susan Howell was fired in large part as retaliation for complaining about being regularly harassed from December 2002 through September 2010, the years she worked for Energy Northwest, claims the lawsuit filed in Eastern Washington District U.S. Court.

Energy Northwest said she lost her job for failing several weapons qualification tests.

"Energy Northwest does not agree with the discrimination allegations," said Energy Northwest spokes-man Mike Paoli. "We believe the court will find no merit to the case."

Howell claimed in court documents that throughout her employment, colleagues pulled her hair, called her "bitch," put their arms around her, wrote "idiot" on her hard hat and ridi-culed her, the legal complaint said. It also said they tampered with her equipment and belongings and referred to using the bathroom as "taking a Susan." Managers refused her requests for restroom breaks, the legal complaint said.

Some of the abusive actions were done in the presence of supervisors who did nothing to stop them, the legal complaint alleged. Some workers were disciplined in a limited way when she reported the harassment, the complaint said.

Throughout her employment, she regularly passed periodic weapons testing until August 2010, the complaint said.

She was told she failed the test Aug. 17, and was required to take the test again the same day in 102 degree heat, which male colleagues had not been required to do in the past, the complaint said. She failed three more tests during the next week, although on one she was initially told she had passed and then the results were nullified because a security trainer checked the equipment during the test, according to court documents.

She was fired Aug. 26. Union officials at the termination hearing said other security guards had been allowed to take the test more than three times, according to court documents.

Howell said at the hearing that she believed women were being singled out and treated differently. A senior-level official then asked in a hostile manner if "this is where this is going," according to court documents.

"At no time did Energy Northwest or its senior leaders disparage Ms. Howell or diminish the nature of her complaints," Paoli said. "We're prepared to defend that position."

Howell initially filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found nothing compelling to take action, according to Energy Northwest. At the completion of its investigation, Howell was free to file a federal lawsuit.

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