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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has accused the Batesville-based White River Health System of violating federal age-discrimination law by firing workers older than 72 because of their age.

The system provides health care services throughout North Central Arkansas.

According to a federal lawsuit filed Friday, on Oct. 23, 2018, the company's area director told two senior center directors, women who were then 77 and 80 years old, that their employment was being terminated, effective immediately, because the system's insurance policy excluded anyone over the age of 72 from driving, and they both had driving responsibilities.

The lawsuit further alleges that a male van driver, then 81, was let go the next day for the same reason.

The EEOC, seeking to represent a class of similarly aggrieved employees over age 72, alleges that White River Health removed other employees older than 72 from their positions for the same reason, without making any attempt to secure alternative driver's insurance that would cover the employees.

"Such alleged conduct violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)," the EEOC said Monday in a news release. The commission said its attorneys first tried to reach a pre-litigation settlement before resorting to filing a federal lawsuit.

The suit seeks monetary relief in the form of back pay and liquidated damages, as well as an injunction against future discrimination.

Sheila Mace, public relations coordinator for White River, on Monday emailed a statement from Gary Paxson, the system's president and chief executive officer, who said he "is surprised and disappointed to learn the EEOC has elected to file suit."

White River "strongly denies allegations that the claimants were discharged for any reason related to their age," Paxson said, adding that the health system "made efforts not only to accommodate these aggrieved former employees but also to provide them with continued employment."

He said White River Health System's "mission as a charitable healthcare organization is to serve the community, and it does so through operation of the Senior Life Centers at the heart of the EEOC's lawsuit. The assertion that those centers, which exist to support seniors in their communities, are a source of age discrimination is baseless."

The system "will respond appropriately" once it has an opportunity to review the lawsuit more thoroughly, according to the statement.

Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director of the EEOC's Memphis District Office, said in the news release, "When Congress passed the ADEA, one of the purposes of the act was 'to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than their age.' To terminate employees simply because they have reached a certain age is illegal as well as unjust."

The Memphis office of the EEOC, which enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Tennessee and portions of Mississippi.

According to the lawsuit, which has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the health system illegally terminated Julie Milburn, then 80; Donna Boyd, then 77; and James Kipfer, then 81, who worked at the system's Senior Life Centers in Salem and Hardy. The system operates eight such centers on behalf of the White River Area Agency on Aging, according to the lawsuit.

It describes Milburn as the director of the Salem center since 2013. She was hired by a previous contract holder and was retained by the system when it took over the contract in July 2016.

The system later recanted its "effective immediately" decision and permitted Milburn to continue working in a nondriving capacity until it filled her position on Nov. 19, 2018, the lawsuit states. It says the system advised Milburn to apply for other positions through the system's website, and although she applied for other positions and was interviewed, she wasn't offered a position.

Boyd was also hired in 2013 as the director of the Hardy Senior Life Center, according to the lawsuit. It says she was also allowed to continue working in a nondriving capacity until Nov. 20, 2018, when her position was filled.

While Boyd was also advised to check the system's website for other job postings, the open positions available were in Batesville, which would have been a 100-mile round trip for her, so she didn't apply, the suit says.

Kipfer had been a van driver at the Hardy Senior Life Center since 2004, and his job duties consisted primarily of delivering meals to seniors in the area, according to the suit. It said his last day was Oct. 24, 2018.

"The effect of the practices ... has been to deprive Julie Milburn, Donna Boyd, James Kipfer and similarly aggrieved individuals of equal employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affect their status as employees because of their age," alleges the lawsuit, filed by EEOC regional attorney Faye A. Williams in Memphis and senior trial attorney Pamela B. Dixon in Little Rock.

Metro on 02/11/2020

Print Headline: U.S. sues Batesville-based health care provider, alleges age discrimination

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