JACKSON — Thomas Spatafore worked as a seasonal weed technician for Teton County Weed and Pest for a decade. By all accounts, he enjoyed the job and was good at it, moving up the ranks to lead his own crew, including on an important contract with the National Elk Refuge.

The summer job had a crucial perk: free housing, which for at least a few seasons was a one-bedroom apartment he didn’t have to share. As an added bonus, because he returned each summer Weed and Pest allowed him to stay over the winters with a monthly rental payment far below market value, to the tune of $150 to $200 a month.

On Nov. 10, 2017, that changed. Weed and Pest supervisor Erika Edmiston and the agency’s board evicted Spatafore, and the following summer they did not offer him a job with the crew he had worked on for years. The events of just a few months — August to November of that year — led to the loss of his job and housing.

Details of Spatafore’s job performance and personal life were on full display July 22 and 23 in a federal trial that Spatafore’s attorney, Richard Renner, called the “first Affordable Care Act whistleblower case in the Western region.” Spatafore and former co-worker Marta Iwaseczko brought a lawsuit against Weed and Pest in federal court, alleging that discrimination and retaliation led to their firings.

Both sides agreed on basic details, such as the dates of Spatafore and Iwaseczko’s firings and the timeline of events. But in court they sparred over the interpretation of granular details. Over two days, both sides made their case before Judge Stephen Henley, who will decide whether Weed and Pest violated a pair of Affordable Care Act provisions.

Spatafore’s allegations date to 2012, when he refused to participate in a Weed and Pest group photo, claiming that being in photos went against his Native American heritage. He said then-program coordinator Travis Ziehl retaliated by furloughing him for a day.

Edmiston testified that Spatafore was contentious in refusing to participate and that Weed and Pest employees weren’t aware of his claim to indigenous heritage. Spatafore, who dressed in a tan suit for the trial, has shaggy, sandy-colored hair, and Weed and Pest defense attorney Steve Emery used his appearance to question the discrimination claims.

“It’s fair to say you don’t look like what Americans classically see when they think of Native Americans,” Emery said while Spatafore was testifying.

Spatafore countered: “Only if you go by stereotypes of Native Americans.”

Following the incident, positive end-of-season evaluations and progression marked Spatafore’s employment with Weed and Pest. However, after he became a crew lead, the highest classification seasonal workers can attain, and found himself at the maximum hourly rate for seasonals, his momentum stopped.

Before the 2017 season, Spatafore lived alone in a one-bedroom unit. The department had married seasonal workers coming in, and Iwaseczko sent out a survey that spring to the seasonal workers, asking those in employee housing if married couples should be given preference over single people for the stand-alone units.

They gave couples precedence, so Spatafore was asked to move into a shared four-bedroom unit. Emery, who has practiced employment law since 1987 and litigated several whistleblower cases, painted that experience as distressing to Spatafore, implying he felt an entitlement to the one-bedroom unit, though Spatafore denied that. Emery said the move was the beginning of Spatafore’s deterioration as an employee.

Near the end of his 2017 season, Spatafore brought complaints to supervisor Amy Girard about Weed and Pest’s hiring practices, his lack of upward mobility and not being offered benefits like health insurance and retirement. He complained that other employees had been offered promotions without the jobs being posted, which he saw as unfair.

Edmiston testified that he had never applied for any full-time positions, and she said that when the department answered his concerns he simply found new things to complain about.

Edmiston and board member Kasey Mateosky asserted at trial that part-time and seasonal workers are not eligible for benefits, per the Weed and Pest employee handbook. They said that was why he was ineligible for benefits, and discrimination didn’t play a role.

However, Spatafore, with information given to him by Iwaseczko, pointed to several employees who were given benefits and didn’t fit the handbook’s eligibility requirements. For example, two other employees received health benefits when they were not full-time employees, though they later transitioned into full-time work.

He said that because some employees were given benefits even though they were not full-time workers and he didn’t, he experienced “disparate treatment.”

“I spoke to [Marta] and told her believed I was being discriminated against for health benefits,” he testified. “I felt it was connected to the discrimination from 2012.”

If he was indeed discriminated against for his heritage, it would be a violation of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in certain health programs or activities,” just as Title IX law prevents discrimination in education.

 

By Tom Hallberg

Jackson Hole News&Guide Via Wyoming News Exchange