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Law360 (April 12, 2021, 6:16 PM EDT) -- A Pennsylvania hospital used layoffs at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for firing a nurse who had taken time off for parental leave, the ex-nurse claimed in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
Maria DiMattio said she had used the Family Medical Leave Act to take parental leave from her job as a nurse anesthetist at Penn Highlands Healthcare's DuBois Regional Medical Center in early March 2020, but she was informed in mid-April that she was among several nurses being permanently laid off due to the pandemic.
DiMattio claimed in her federal discrimination complaint Monday that the company kept less-qualified male nurses doing the same work and paid them more per hour to temporarily fill her duties before replacing her with someone whose duties were identical to hers.
"Plaintiff believes and avers that the purported reason for her termination is completely pretextual and that she was really terminated because of her gender, pregnancy, and/or use of protected leave under the FMLA," the complaint said.
DiMattio claimed her firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the FMLA.
DiMattio said she had been a certified registered nurse anesthetist, or CRNA, at the DuBois facility since 2016 and had received consistently good performance reviews. But she said in her suit that there were already indications of gender discrimination when she was hired, including a male superior who told her before her first day on the job that he had two "bitches" in his department — including one of the other female CRNAs who would eventually be laid off.
The supervisors, who were all men, selectively enforced policies more strictly against female workers and gave male workers preferential treatment for scheduling and overtime, DiMattio's complaint said.
DiMattio said she informed her bosses that she was pregnant in August 2019 and told them she would take 12 weeks' FMLA leave when her child was born. That leave commenced March 6, 2020, just days before the pandemic triggered closures and lockdowns across Pennsylvania and the country.
On April 15, the hospital's human resources department told DiMattio that she was among the employees being let go because of the pandemic, she said, but the layoffs disproportionately affected her female colleagues.
"There were a total of four CRNAs (including plaintiff) who were permanently laid off on or about the same date," the complaint said. "While other individuals were furloughed during this time, they were (upon information and belief) recalled. All four CRNAs who were laid off permanently on or about April 15, 2020 were female."
All four CRNAs who were let go had more experience and seniority than the male CRNAs who were kept, the suit said. The hospital allegedly advertised for new hires with the exact same job description soon after the layoffs and temporarily filled the jobs with contractors who were getting paid more than the fired female nurses, DiMattio claimed.
Adding to her suspicion that the pandemic was merely a pretext for firing her, DiMattio said the hospital gave a different reason for letting her go when she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The hospital's position statement to the EEOC had said DiMattio was selected for a permanent layoff because she had allegedly told them in October 2019 that she was going to take a job in Pittsburgh rather than return at the end of her maternity leave, which DiMattio denied in her complaint.
"Plaintiff simply inquired in or about October of 2019 whether she would be required to return from maternity leave for any specific amount of time, as she was considering moving to Pittsburgh," the complaint said. "Plaintiff never submitted a resignation letter or confirmed with anyone that she was moving to Pittsburgh or had accepted a job there."
Counsel for DiMattio and a representative of Penn Highlands Healthcare did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
DiMattio is represented by Ari R. Karpf of Karpf Karpf & Cerutti PC.
Counsel information for Penn Highlands was not immediately available.
The case is DiMattio v. DuBois Regional Medical Center et al., in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. It had not yet been assigned a unique case number as of Monday afternoon.
--Editing by Andrew Cohen.
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