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Staples worker claims she was fired over complaints

Last modified: 12/4/2010 12:00:00 AM
A Concord woman claimed yesterday in a lawsuit that managers at Staples made her clean an overflowing toilet without protective gear and then fired her for complaining to federal regulators.

Carol Jean Cherrette has been unable to find work since she was fired in March for reporting the Fort Eddy Road location of the office supply company to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said attorney Kevin Leonard. OSHA cited the store in March for violations consistent with the complaints in the lawsuit, though an OSHA spokesman said the agency does not identify the people who file complaints.

Cherrette was hired in November 2008 as a sales associate, according to the lawsuit. She was a top seller of the store's product replacement plans and twice won an employee-of-the-month award, the suit says. She also worked the cash register and cleaned restrooms.

One day last December, a manager approached Cherrette at her work station, flipped off the light and instructed Cherrette to clean the women's restroom, according to the suit.

'When Ms. Cherrette went to the ladies' restroom, she discovered to her horror a toilet overflowing with human waste and toilet paper,' the suit says.

It goes on to describe a graphic and unsanitary scene. 'Aghast at the condition of the toilet,' Cherrette summoned her manager, who saw the toilet was completely filled. When Cherrette asked how she was supposed to clean the mess, the manager handed her a hook and a small bucket. She instructed her to use the tools to remove the waste from the toilet and deposit it in a waste receptacle outside.

Cherrette asked her manager if she could have protective gear to guard herself from the waste. When first hired, Cherrette had been shown in a video that the company would provide equipment to employees handling hazardous substances, the suit says. Such gear could include eye protection or a garment, Leonard said.

But the manager brought Cherrette only gloves, and the lawsuit describes how feces splashed onto her clothing, arms and face as she transferred it to the bucket.

'At times during the process, Ms. Cherrette felt nauseous and was brought to tears,' the suits says.

Unable to properly clean herself, Cherrette was ordered to the cash register, where she worked for the remainder of the day.

The next day, her husband returned with her to the store and asked the manger why Staples had not provided her with 'PPE,' or personal protection equipment. According to the suit, the manager 'derided Ms. Cherrette, and sarcastically asked (her husband) whether 'PPE' was an Army term based on Mr. Cherrette's military background.'

Days later, Cherrette complained to OSHA. Inspectors contacted the company, which responded that it was 'committed to providing a safe work environment' for its employees, according to the suit.

Later, another manager instructed Cherrette to clean the women's restroom, where she mopped the flooded floor and picked up used feminine hygiene products, according to the suit. Again, she requested protective garments but was given only gloves. She again complained to OSHA.

An OSHA inspector visited the Staples store in Concord on Feb. 11. The next day, according to the suit, Cherrette was suspended from her job. Cherrette was told she had been suspended for giving a Canadian penny to a customer while she was working the register, Leonard said.

On March 25, the agency issued a citation and penalty to Staples. The suit alleges that the citation was based on Cherrette's complaints. The following day, Cherrette was fired. She was told she was losing her job for selling a service protection plan on an ineligible product, Leonard said.

'The causal connection is demonstrated by the timing,' he said. 'One day, the inspection, the next day, the suspension. One day, the citation, the next day, her termination.'

Staples was cited March 25 for three serious violations and initially fined $7,500, according to OSHA records. The company settled the case with the agency's Concord office, and two of the violations were dropped to a lower level of seriousness. The company was ultimately fined $500.

A spokeswoman for Staples yesterday said she was unable to reach anyone who could speak to the case or the janitorial practices at Staples stores.

Cherrette wants Staples to hire her again and pay her attorney's fees and back pay, according to the suit. She has requested a trial by jury.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)


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