Port Lavaca electrician Ernest Villarreal just wanted to work.
“I’m doing this so that this kind of thing will never happen to anyone else,” said Villarreal, 59, who is suing his employer, Formosa Plastic Corp., in federal court.
After working more than 30 years at the Point Comfort Formosa plant and enduring an on-the-job industrial accident that crippled his hearing, Villarreal suffered discrimination and tens of thousands of dollars in lost earnings, according to his lawsuit, which was filed earlier this year. Although supervisors allowed Villarreal for about six years to protect what little hearing he had by working in a less-noisy department, new management decided to rescind that accommodation in 2016.
Providing such accommodation is mandated by federal law, said Victoria attorney John Griffin, who is representing Villarreal.
“I’ve given my life to Formosa,” said Villarreal, adding, “I’m loyal to the company, but that company needs to make some changes.”
Formosa spokesman Steve Marwitz said Friday that Formosa does not comment about pending litigation. Calls to the company’s attorneys were unanswered.
According to an answer filed in court by Formosa, any decisions the company made about Villarreal’s employment were for “legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonretaliatory reasons.” Additionally, Formosa cites the Texas Labor Code in claiming Villarreal’s disability is not protected by law because it impaired his ability to reasonably perform his job.
But the wrongs endured by Villarreal, went beyond Formosa’s unwillingness to accommodate, Griffin said.
Just before the electrician was transferred to another department, Bill Laas, the company’s human resources director, berated him in front of other employees, calling Villarreal a “lazy, fat Mexican,” according to the lawsuit.
The claim was corroborated by Shane Burgin, a Formosa safety director who testified during a Nov. 7 deposition to personally witnessing the derogatory remarks.
“I worked very, very hard – harder than most – to get to where I am,” Villarreal said.
Born in Victoria and raised in Port Lavaca, Villarreal has worked since a young age. At the age of 10 when epilepsy sidelined his father, Villarreal began working to support his mother and siblings, he said. To buy shoes and clothes for school, he washed fire engines for the Port Lavaca Fire Department.
After graduating from Calhoun High School in 1979, Villarreal began working for Hayes Electric Service. In 1987, he was hired at Formosa as a journeyman electrician.
Two years into that employment, a pressure release valve exploded while Villarreal was eating lunch at the plant. Villarreal described the deafening noise as so loud it overwhelmed his hearing despite him holding his hands over his ears.
During the next 15 years, the damage to his hearing had worsened so that one ear was completely deaf while the other retained a fraction of its previous ability.
While Griffin and Villarreal admit the hearing loss was severe, it was not so bad that he was prevented from doing his job, they said.
In fact, Griffin said, Villarreal’s work was graded as above-average in employee evaluations. So, when the electrician asked to complete his work in a less noisy department about eight years ago, his supervisors complied.
But in 2016, new management revoked that opportunity, requiring Villarreal to seek temporary medical leave to avoid working in the too-noisy area. During that leave, Villarreal lost wages and a contract to mow acres of grass on Formosa’s property.
Villarreal has since been allowed to return to work in the less-noisy department, but the lost earnings and the principle behind his complaints remain, his attorney said.
“His race should have nothing to do with it – neither should his hearing impairment,” Griffin said. “The only question that should be on the table was how well can this man do his job.”
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability unless the employer can show that the accommodation would be an undue hardship.
That requirement was established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush.
“He told all Americans that we are not going to throw away good workers just because they have a disability. We are going to work with those workers because when they work, America is more productive,” Griffin said. “When Ernest works, Formosa is more productive.”
Griffin said the remarks made by the human resources director and a lack of a company policy regarding disability accommodations are evidence of a systemic disregard for employees with disabilities. Burgin, the company’s safety director, agreed during his November deposition.
“There is no organized effort or training orientation program for managers or supervisors on how to accommodate or not accommodate employees. There’s been very little effort to train management on any ADA, disabilities (or) equal employment law,” Burgin said. “There’s no structure that keeps a manager or supervisor from making a bad decision.”