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Lakewood Township taxpayers are on the hook for a discrimination complaint just slammed against the Lakewood Board of Education and their vendor Aramark Facility Services. The complaint was filed by a long time custodian who says that in retaliation for filing for workers compensation after a job related injury, her employers placed dead bats in the areas where she had cleaned to make it look as if she was not doing her job.

According to the complaint filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Ocean County by Red Bank attorney Sean F. Byrnes, Esq.:

For the past 17 years, Lakewood resident Widilia Johnson has been employed by the Lakewood Board of Education or their vendor Aramark.

For the entire 17 years, Johnson worked as a custodian, and for approximately 15 years, prior to 2023, she worked as a Lead Custodian.

Throughout the entire course of her employment, she did not received any warnings or any other form of discipline. In fact, she did her job meticulously and was a model employee.

At one point in 2022, Johnson was injured at work while operating a machine used to clean the floors.

Prior to her injury, another firm or individual to operate the machine and do the floors. Johnson is of small stature, and the machine is heavy and difficult to control. In short, she is not physically large enough to handle the machine. 

Prior to Aramark taking over the custodial services for Lakewood in 2019, Johnson had fallen once using the machine. Aramark insisted that she continue to use the machine, despite the difficulty in using it. 

After suffering her injury in 2022, she filed a worker’s compensation action. 

Since the filing of the worker's compensation action, her employers have harassed her. In December 2022, her employers began taking steps to make it look like she was not doing her job. 

Johnson endured the harassment and continued to focus on her job and performing her duties as required. To guard against the actions by her employers, she started taking pictures when she finished a job to show the good condition that she had left it in.

When the harassment did not deter Johnson from continuing her employment, they moved her out of the Spruce Street School where she had worked for many years. They moved her into a smaller space. Beyond just moving the location of her job, they also changed her hours of work, to make it more difficult for her. Finally, they demoted her from her Lead Custodian position and reduced her pay by $2 an hour.

Shortly after demoting her, they posted her position as Lead Custodian for hiring. 

The actions taken against the Plaintiff were taken as retaliation against her for taking a worker’s  compensation claim. This conduct violates N.J.S.A. 34:15-19.1.

In New Jersey, employers are required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s handicap or disability. An accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way job functions are customarily done, which enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. An employee may not be denied employment opportunities because of a handicap or disability unless the nature and extent of the handicap reasonably precludes job performance.

The altering of her working conditions, reducing her pay, and moving her from the school that she had worked in for many years - which all came after she filed a worker’s compensation action, and after she advised her employers that her rotator cuff injury would not allow her to operate the floor cleaning machine, were unnecessary and were triggered by an intention to retaliate against her.

Her disability and injury could easily have been accommodated, but her employers chose not to. Rather than engaging her in an interactive process, as required under law, her employers simply altered her workplace conditions and reduced her pay. These actions violate New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

After her injury in the workplace, Johnson returned to work and was subjected to a hostile work environment. Her employers engaged in steps to make it look as if she was not doing her job, even going as far as to place dead bats in the areas where she had cleaned. Johnson was forced to take pictures upon finishing her jobs, so that she could prove that she had done the work as required.

Her employers' conduct was severe or pervasive enough that it created a hostile work environment.

The 3 count complaint demands judgement against the Board of Education and Aramark for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, interest and cost of suit, and such other and further damages as the court deems just and equitable.

The suit demands trial by a jury on all of the triable issues of the complaint.

The matter is pending before Judge Craig L. Wellerson. The defendants have 35 days to answer the complaint.

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