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Northlands whistleblower wins $3.2 million

VERGENNES — A jury has ordered the company that operates the Northlands Job Corps federally funded job training center in Vergennes to pay a former employee $3.2 million for firing him after he complained about alleged safety violations there.

Two things happened to Thomas Cole, then a residential counselor at Northlands, when he went to work on Monday, July 23, 2018.

First, Cole recounts in legal papers, a colleague came to work sick and was told by her supervisor to find a replacement before she went home. Unable to find a replacement, she was still at work nine hours later.

Second, Cole discovered that a dorm where several of the students were ill was completely out of cleaning supplies, he alleges.

The next day, Cole met with Center Director Alicia Grangent and communicated his concern about the health and safety violations he had witnessed, Cole said in his suit. Cole said this was only the first of several attempts he made to lodge complaints with the Kentucky company that a month earlier took over operation of the Northlands Job Corps Center.

On Friday afternoon, July 27, 2018, Cole was fired.

This past Friday, July 30, 2021 — three years and three days later — Cole was awarded $3,215,000 by a jury that found in his favor in a lawsuit against the Kentucky company, Foxmar, which operates under the name Education and Training Resources, or ETR. The decision by the jury in the trial held in U.S. District Court in Burlington orders ETR to pay Cole $215,000 in lost wages and emotional distress damages and $3 million in punitive damages.

Cole’s claims were brought under the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Act (VOSHA) and the Vermont Earned Sick Time Act (VESTA), both of which prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for making complaints under those statutes.

Cole’s attorney, Colchester lawyer William Pettersen, said in an Aug. 2 press release that “the jury’s verdict gives notice to ETR, and other employers who might be tempted to engage in such unlawful conduct, that they must listen when employees report health and safety issues observed at their places of employment and must never retaliate or create an environment where employees are fearful to report those issues. The health and safety of the entire country depends on it.”

Through numerous depositions with former employees at Northlands Job Corps and extensive written discovery, Pettersen found evidence that the reason Cole was fired was retaliatory, as well as that the alleged safety issues were not isolated but ongoing, Pettersen told the Independent.

Three former and two current employees at Northlands backed Cole up as witnesses in his five-day trial in Burlington last week.

ETR is the most recent corporation contracted by the U.S. Department of Labor to oversee Northlands Job Corps, an educational facility providing training and employment services to disadvantaged youth and young adults to assist with their professional and personal growth. ETR manages at least seven other Job Corps centers in the country. Their contract at Northlands is five years, with the two initial years guaranteed and the following three (starting in June of 2020) conditional at the discretion of the Department of Labor.

Current Northlands Director Michael Dooley declined to comment and said he would refer a reporter’s queries to his bosses at ETR. ETR has not responded to a request for comment. U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Ted Fitzgerald was researching the issue as of press time.

“This case is important because he (Cole) knew it was wrong, it was putting others at risk…he was brave enough to file a lawsuit and the jury rewarded his principles,” Pettersen said.

Reach Hannah Laga Abram at [email protected].

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