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She was battling cancer when she says Harris Ranch fired her. Now she's suing

The Fresno Bee - 1/8/2020

Jan. 8--A Tulare woman is suing the Harris Ranch Beef Company for allegedly firing her after taking medical leave while undergoing chemotherapy, following breast cancer surgery.

However, the Selma-based company is denying the firing.

Yolanda Alcala, who had worked for the company for more than 20 years, filed the lawsuit at the Fresno County Superior Court on Monday.

Alexis Alvarez, a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, who is representing Alcala on the case, said employers have an obligation to reasonably accommodate employees when a disability or serious illness, like cancer, arises. Those accommodations can include extending the employee's medical leave or modifying the employee's job.

"When Harris Ranch fired me, I felt like I had been thrown away like a used rag," Alcala said in an email, through her attorney. "I sought legal help because I want Harris to respect my and other workers' rights."

However, Harris Ranch says that's not what happened.

Mike Casey, vice president for risk management and human resources at Harris Ranch Beef Company, in a statement said the company was "disappointed" to learn about the now pending litigation by Alcala. He said the company is in compliance with state and federal laws, and that it was Alcala who chose to leave the company.

"The complaint depicts a wide range of attorney generated inaccuracies and outright misrepresentations surrounding Ms. Alcala's situation," he said. "Ms. Alcala was provided a superior health care plan that fully paid for her cancer care and medical treatments throughout her 20-year career."

Casey said the company looks forward to the legal process setting the record straight.

Alvarez, in response, said the allegation by Harris Ranch Beef Company that Alcala was the one who chose to no longer work for the company, "is simply not true." She said there was a January 2018 meeting where Alcala was terminated effective immediately.

Lawsuit's allegations

The lawsuit alleges several civil rights violations, including disability discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate, failure to engage in the interactive process, and retaliation in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. It further alleges violations of California's Unfair Business Practices Act and wrongful termination.

"For more than twenty years, Ms. Alcala was a dedicated and hardworking employee," the lawsuit reads. "She regularly received attendance bonuses and was well-liked by her managers and peers."

Alcala was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2017, and on July 27, 2017 she took medical leave to undergo surgery. About a month later, she tried to return to work, but had difficulty finishing her shift, given the effects of undergoing chemotherapy, the lawsuit alleges.

Soon after, Alcala submitted a doctor's note, requesting to be on leave from Aug. 29, 2017 to May 1, 2018. On Jan. 19, 2018, the defendants allegedly terminated her employment.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees have 12 weeks of leave. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, an employer has the legal obligation to reasonable accommodation, such as extending leave, unless it presents an undue hardship situation. The employers can treat those situations on a case-by-case basis.

Alcala says she is seeking to get the company to change its practices, and is seeking an unspecified amount for lost wages and benefits, as well as attorney's fees and other costs associated with the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Alcala filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. On March 6, 2019, she was notified by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing of her right to sue.

Alcala began to work for the Harris Ranch Beef Company in 1996, and most recently she worked there as a meat trimmer at the company's beef packing facility in Selma.

Alcala says she contacted a Human Resources employee to inform her that she had been unable to finish her shift on Aug. 28 due to the effects of her chemotherapy. The HR employee allegedly told Alcala she would be fired if she was unable to work for three months.

Despite the firing threat, Alcala proceeded to submit her doctor's note for additional medical leave, the lawsuit alleges.

The suit alleged that while Alcala was on leave, a representative called her and requested that she come to the office. When she did, Alcala was informed that she was terminated effective the day of the meeting on Jan. 19, 2018 because she had exhausted all her available leave.

"At the time of her termination, (Alcala) had 101.96 unused vacation hours and 103.08 unused sick hours," the lawsuit states.

Casey said it's possible that Alcala had time accrued, but not available at that time. He said her union contract would dictate when accrued time became available.

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