ITHACA, N.Y. – The Finger Lakes School of Massage has settled a case brought by seven former employees through the National Labor Relations Board. Seven employees submitted complaints to the NLRB in November alleging they were terminated after protesting decisions made by the school’s upper management. The complaints, filed by attorney Angela Cornell of the Cornell Labor Law Clinic, contend “the employer retaliated against (the employees) due to participation in concerted group activity meant to improve the conditions of employment.”
The NLRB issued a consolidated complaint to FLSM, represented by CEO David Merwin, after a preliminary investigation found the employees’ allegations had merit, Cornell said. The case was scheduled to appear before an administrative judge on May 13. However, Cornell said all seven employees withdrew their charges after reaching a settlement with their former employer.
“We willingly withdrew all of the charges because we were able to find a settlement that the parties agreed on,” Cornell said. While she said she cannot disclose the terms of the settlement, she called it a positive outcome for the employees.
Attorneys representing the Finger Lakes School of Massage did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The employees’ charges stem from a week in September marked by disputes and turnover at FLSM. Jeannie O’Neill, regional director of education at the time, was fired on Monday, Sept. 10, a day after she sent an email to FLSM’s Ithaca campus director asking questions about new directives related to employee scheduling and dress codes. O’Neill’s termination marked a tipping point for other employees with concerns about the company’s leadership.
Beth Tomlinson, regional director of financial aid at the time, walked off the job that afternoon and never returned, she said in an interview with The Ithaca Voice in October.
Ana Ottoson, who was campus clinic coordinator, said she joined with a group of co-workers to draft a list of demands including O’Neill’s reinstatement and an investigation into supervisors accused of creating a hostile work environment. Ottoson and several other employees walked out and sent the list of demands to Merwin on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
Ottoson said the demands “were flat out refused, and then everyone who signed it was fired.”
While Ottoson said she never received any direct communication from Merwin after walking out, many staff members received an email on Wednesday, Sept. 12 warning that they had until 5 p.m. Friday to contact Merwin “if you want your jobs back,” she said.
At the end of the day on Friday, Sept. 14 the seven charging parties in the NLRB case lost their jobs.
The NLRB complaint alleges an email from the employer “implicitly threatened employees by requiring them to reapply for their current jobs in response to concerted complaints presented to Respondent by employees.”
It further alleges that on Friday, Sept. 14, the employer, “by e-mail, promulgated an overly broad rule prohibiting employees from communicating with Respondent as a group and requiring employees to communicate with Respondent individually.”
In an answer to the complaint, attorneys representing the Finger Lakes School of Massage denied both allegations. The answer confirms that the seven complainants’ employment ended, but disputes the allegation that they were “discharged” rather than resigning voluntarily.
Rob Brown, operations manager for the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, helped facilitate the employees’ NLRB case by steering them toward the Cornell Labor Law Clinic after hearing their stories. Brown said retaliation against workers who coordinate to raise concerns is a textbook violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees’ right to “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
Brown said when the group recounted their experience to labor advocates at the Workers’ Center, “we heard it and immediately thought it a flagrant National Labor Relations Act violation.”
Brown commended the employees for responding to O’Neill’s termination as a unified group. “In September of 2018, after the unfair termination of one of their colleagues, a really inspiring group of workers acted together to protest the company’s hostile work environment. I say they’re inspiring because they did everything right just because it’s the right thing to do. They responded to the situation in solidarity seeking to engage management to correct problems for each other’s sake, not even thinking that they were being labor organizers,” he said via email.
Cornell said the case should offer encouragement to workers throughout the community whose right to collective action has been infringed upon.
“It’s important for workers in the community to remember that there are laws that do protect them, particularly when they work together to improve terms and conditions of employment, Cornell said. “If they suffer retaliation in the workplace as a result of those activities, they may have a claim under the NLRA.”