Arbitrator finds for former Morris Menards employee

MORRIS – An arbitrator has ruled that a former Morris Menards manager was unlawfully fired in August 2012 after six years of employment with the store.

Michelle Mortensen of Dwight was awarded $220,000 following the arbitrator’s ruling. Her firing came four days after she lodged a complaint about perceived employee discrimination via the company’s anonymous complaint hotline, known as AWARE.

Menards employees are supposed to call the AWARE number if they feel discriminated against at work. Mortensen wanted to protest the behavior of a store manager, who she alleged discriminated against her because she is a woman.

“I did it because I actually cared about the store,” Mortensen said. “I was trying to make corporate aware of what was happening, and I was punished for it.”

To further protect her identity, Mortensen said she had her husband call the AWARE hotline, so her voice would not be recognized.

Contrary to what was promised, the AWARE phone line used a caller ID system, which identified Mortensen by name, and the conversation with the representative was transcribed, according to the official arbitration ruling which was provided to the Morris Daily Herald by Mortensen.

After receiving the call, Menards sent a district manager to investigate Mortensen’s complaint, according to the arbitration documents.

Mortensen was fired four days after the investigation.

In the official ruling, arbitrator Peter Meyers wrote that “even if [the investigator] did not reveal the identity of the hotline caller to [the manager], it may be that [the manager] was able to guess that the complaint originated with [Mortensen].”

Meyers found the termination was an illegal retaliation against Mortensen and wrote in the opinion that the Menards’ “supposedly anonymous complaint hotline is anything but anonymous.”

The corporate office did not respond to emails sent Aug. 29, but a spokeswoman said Thursday that Menards typically does not comment on arbitration cases. The Menards attorney representing the Morris manager did not immediately return phone calls made Thursday.

“Really, the reason they awarded these damages was the fact that this hotline was far from anonymous,” said Miriam Geraghty, Mortensen’s attorney. “That in fact, the recording identified the person who was calling. It was pretty clear, based on the evidence presented, that Michelle was targeted as a result of the call.”

Mortensen said she is thrilled about her victory, but is concerned for other Menards employees wanting to file complaints using the AWARE system.

“I would hope that Menards would actually see what has happened to me and change,” Mortensen said. “This is not anonymous. These people are made aware that they are calling. Menards is not protecting their own employees.”