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U.S. commission sues South Tampa massage center for firing employee over Ebola fears

In Tampa federal court, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accuses a massage business of disability discrimination for firing an employee who traveled to Ghana against its orders. The business feared she’d return with Ebola, according to the complaint, even though the west African nation never experienced the deadly disease.
In Tampa federal court, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accuses a massage business of disability discrimination for firing an employee who traveled to Ghana against its orders. The business feared she’d return with Ebola, according to the complaint, even though the west African nation never experienced the deadly disease.
Published Aug. 7, 2017

TAMPA — A massage therapist was fired for traveling to the African nation of Ghana after bosses who feared she would bring back Ebola forbid her from going there, according to a federal complaint.

Now, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing the employer, a South Tampa Massage Envy franchise, alleging it discriminated against Kimberly Lowe because she had a disability.

The case is a significant example of protection against disability discrimination — whether or not the alleged victim actually had one, Kimberly Cruz, an attorney in Miami representing the commission, told the Tampa Bay Times.

"This establishes what Congress set out to do in protecting those with disabilities, actual or presumed," Cruz said.

Attorneys for the business acknowledge they fired Cruz for traveling, but they say it's none of the commission's business because the grounds for their decision was insubordination, not discrimination.

Lowe, a licensed massage therapist, was hired by South Tampa Massage Envy in 2012. According to the commission complaint, filed with U.S. District Court in Tampa, Lowe asked for permission in 2014 to visit her sister in Ghana.

Roxanna Iorio, the company business manager, approved the request, the complaint states.

But after Lowe's last scheduled shift before her time off, in October 2014, Iorio and a Massage Envy owner, Ron Wuchko, told her that if she traveled to Ghana she would be fired, according to the complaint.

Wuchko told Lowe if she went to Ghana she would contract Ebola and "bring it home to Tampa and infect everyone," according to the complaint.

Ghana, in fact, never recorded a death as the disease claimed some 11,300 lives through January 1916 in the western African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.

The capital of Ghana was chosen by the United Nations as an emergency response headquarters during the Ebola crisis because it was close to the deadly outbreak without actually experiencing it. The headquarters was closed in June 2015 after the crisis abated.

Despite her bosses' directive, Lowe went to Ghana anyway. When she returned, she was not allowed to work at Massage Envy or to keep her clients, according to the complaint.

Lowe declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

Her firing, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, violates the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.

"This case calls into focus workplace decisions based upon the very fears and stereotypes Congress long ago intended to prohibit," commission attorneys wrote in the complaint.

Attorneys with Massage Envy disagree.

"Making a choice to travel is not an impairment under the ADA, whether actual or perceived," they wrote in response to the complaint. "Lowe's refusal to cancel her trip constitutes an act of insubordination."

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The commission serves an important role in employment law, but not in this case, said Sharon Wey, an attorney in Tampa with Miller, Tack and Madson, representing Massage Envy. Michael Miller, a lead attorney with the firm, told the Times that the complaint sets a poor precedent.

"This is an incredibly far reaching position for the EEOC to take," Miller said. "Congress writes the law. The EEOC does not write the law. That's what they're trying to do. ... Everyone in America has the potential to become disabled."

Miller called the case a "David and Goliath" attack on a small business franchise by the government.

"At the same time," he said, "we all know how David and Goliath worked out."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com.

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