Maine man says Bath Iron Works fired him because he coached kids while on medical leave
BATH, Maine (BDN) -- It’s a common story in Bath: For five generations, members of the Bennett family graduated from Morse High School, then marched down Washington Street to work coveted jobs at Bath Iron Works.
Brian Bennett was part of that tradition, a point guard and captain of the Morse basketball team in 2001, the year he and his twin brother, Mike Bennett, graduated. Mike now coaches the Morse wrestling team, a gig he took over from his father, longtime wrestling coach Tom Bennett. And in 2015, Brian Bennett became the varsity boys basketball coach at his alma mater.
For eight years, Brian worked at BIW, starting as a designer in 2008, and eventually earning more than $27 an hour as a planning tech. His dad still works on the company’s production floor, and Mike is a supervisor at the main shipyard in Bath.
But in 2016, Brian Bennett was suspended, and later fired, from BIW, which accused him of fraud and “job abandonment” after a medical leave for treatment of bipolar disorder.
After months of symptoms including irritability, poor concentration and frequently being on the verge of crying, in January 2016, Bennett took two weeks of vacation, then was granted a two-month leave from the shipyard.
During that leave, Bennett’s psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Garnett, recommended that he continue coaching throughout the leave in order to prevent another symptom, social isolation.
According to a response from the company to a Maine Human Rights Commission complaint, Bennett did not disclose to BIW that he was continuing to coach — although Bennett said he “checked in weekly” with his supervisor.
Bennett said insurer UNUM, after initially denying his claim before reversing it on appeal, paid part of his salary through short-term disability during the leave, but BIW refused to pay its portion.
The company said in its response to the MHRC that it “is not the standard in the medical community” to determine that Bennett was unable to work at BIW but was able to continue coaching.
In February of this year, attorney Chad Hansen of Maine Employee Rights Group filed suit in U.S. District Court on Bennett’s behalf, charging BIW with violating the Maine Human Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“It’s not that tricky,” Hansen said. “You have a good employee, and sometimes good employees need time off.”
“I was a wreck,” Bennett said recently of the period before and during his leave. “I was crying uncontrollably and having just really, really bad thoughts … I was just living in complete darkness.”
“There would be days when I’d get up and go to work in the morning, and I’d get home at night and the house would still be dark,” Bennett’s wife, Jamie Bennett, said recently. “I could tell he’d literally done nothing for the day.”
Working with bipolar disorder
In 2002, Bennett was hospitalized twice after being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, a diagnosis Garnett confirmed when he first saw Bennett in 2015. In early 2016, he made a “therapeutic recommendation” that Bennett take a leave of absence from BIW, but not from coaching, he wrote in a March 16 letter to the company and provided to the Bangor Daily News.
“The intent was to try to maintain what functioning he could at the time so as to avoid further regression of symptoms and functioning,” Garnett wrote. “The consequence of not completing that commitment would have been worse, and would have delayed his eventual recovery and return to work.”
“I’d do the practices and home games — like an hour and a half a day,” Bennett said of coaching that season. “I almost got on the bus to go to an away game and I could just feel something going on, so I had my two [assistant] coaches take that on.”
In the middle of March 2016, Bennett returned to BIW part time, expecting to be back to 40 hours a week shortly.
But on the day he returned to the company’s East Brunswick manufacturing plant, he was visited by his shop steward, a planning manager and a labor relations representative.
Bennett said he was handed a surveillance report by a private investigator hired by BIW to watch him. The company allegedly “accused [Bennett] of working another job” by continuing to coach during his medical leave of absence. He was suspended and escorted from the building. In July he was fired, according to court documents.
“Blindsided is an understatement,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t hiding anything. I did exactly what I was told to do per doctor’s orders.”
Bennett’s suit seeks a jury trial and asks for back pay, lost future earnings, compensatory and punitive damages, and that Bennett be reinstated in his job.
It also asks that the jury require BIW to mail a letter to each of its 6,000 employees informing them of the verdict, that the company post notices of the verdict in workplaces, and that a ruling enjoinder BIW from future acts that the suit alleges were illegal.
In the suit, Hansen alleges that Bennett’s case is just one of many in which BIW’s occupational medicine physician, Dr. Maria Mazorra, has overruled a private physician. Mazorra has a “practice of rendering BIW-friendly opinions regarding people she has not met and never treated, disregards information from employees’ own physicians,” Hansen wrote.
Furthermore, the suit charges that “BIW has a practice of surveilling employees who require medical leave, wrongfully accusing the employees of fraud without a basis, and terminating the employees.”
Mazorra referred all questions to BIW.
In a written statement, BIW said, “Mr. Bennett represented to BIW that he lacked any capacity to continue his job as a fabrication planner, but at the same time continued to work in a paid position as a high school varsity basketball coach. BIW ultimately declined to excuse Mr. Bennett’s absences from work, based on his demonstrated capacity to work.”
The shipyard’s statement notes that “employment decisions are guided by federal and state law, as well as the collective bargaining agreements covering those employees, like Mr. Bennett, who are represented by a union. Mr. Bennett was treated in compliance with the law and the applicable collective bargaining agreement.”
In a response filed in court, BIW lead attorney Ernest J. Babcock said Bennett’s claims are without merit, and denies, among other allegations, that Bennett “sought social isolation because of his illness.” The company admits in the filing to hiring a private investigator “to investigate its good faith suspicion that [Bennett] had misused the leave of absence.”
The company argues that Bennett’s situation did not comply with Family and Medical Leave Act guidelines at the time he was granted leave.
“BIW acted in good faith toward plaintiff at all times,” the response states. “To the extent plaintiff proves he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a disability, such accommodation was provided absent (a) bad faith conduct by plaintiff; and/or (b) undue hardship.”
Bennett compared the stress of coaching to what he experienced at BIW as “apples and oranges.”
At BIW, the arrival of former president Fred Harris changed the environment, “making all the [managers] go out for themselves, which put all the emphasis on the workers — no talking, clamp down, higher demands, higher output,” he said. “People yelling with parent goggles on about why their son isn’t playing more minutes in a high school basketball game is far from [the stress of] working with multibillion-dollar contracts.”
Bennett’s not concerned about athletes and parents learning about his condition. They already know he’s “animated,” he said. “Some people think I’m just a crazy little chubby bald guy who yells, but in practices I’m just laid back and loose, and I give such a long leash. … But I’ll work on that this year. I won’t yell so much.
“I think if you asked any kid [if] they like playing for me, they’d say yes,” he said. “I know I’m doing this job correctly. Wins and losses, that hasn’t come yet, but it’ll come.”
Bennett referred to Morse’s record, which during the late 1980s included three consecutive Class A state championships under Tom Maines, but has had just nine winning seasons in the 24 years since Maines left in 1993.
Last year, Morse finished with a 4-14 record; they were 6-12 the previous year.
“I can only develop the kids the best I can and try to win ball games,” he said. “With the groups of kids we have, we haven’t experienced winning. If I don’t start to win this year and then in the year to come, then by all means, make a change.”
This summer, Bennett continues to search for a job, although he hopes the lawsuit will lead to his return to BIW. He also looks forward to “summer hoops” in town, and taking his team to Augusta on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the Cony Summer League.
He takes medication to keep his symptoms at bay — although he struggles with side effects such as lethargy and weight gain — and the couple has attended marriage counseling, Jamie said, adding, her eyes welling with tears, “I really learned that it’s not my fault. It’s the disease.”
They’re both enjoying the their 2-year-old daughter, although Brian worries, “I think, sometimes, she can tell.”
He hopes being candid about his experiences will help reduce the stigma of mental illness.
“It’s not something I’m going to start the first practice with — “My name is Brian Bennett and I have bipolar II disorder” — but if someone asks me, I’m going to be honest with them,” he said. “Over the past two years, a few times I’ve dealt with parents and student athletes who’ve had issues and I’ve given them complete honesty about my background and told them to call me day or night and suggested who to talk to. … Now seems like the time for mental health to be at the forefront and to let people know that it’s there and it’s nothing to be afraid of.”