The New York Daily News is reporting on the decision from a unanimous jury in Brooklyn Federal Court last week that granted $5.1 million to employees who were forced to behave in bizarre ways – or were fired – when the company became involved with a cult-like non-profit organization known as the Harnessing Happiness Foundation.
Founded by Denali Jordan, the aunt of United Health CEO Robert Hodes, it aims to help people “infuse happiness and hope into every day life” by acquiring “emotional knowledge and intelligence, conflict resolution and life handling skills.” Followers rely on the teachings of a cartoon character named Onionhead – which is a talking onion - who teaches emotional awareness by showing the many layers of feelings.
Ex-employees reveal a bizarre workplace environment created by Jordan, who made monthly trips to Long Island from her home in California to lead spiritual readings and prayer sessions. They were forced to wear Onionhead pins, to share personal problems during sessions with Jordan, participate in spiritual cleansing rituals, prayer, and religious workshops. They were also encouraged to say “I love you” to management and colleagues, were forced to work with no overhead lights, and to make donations to Jordan’s non-profit from their paychecks.
Employees also attended a weekend “corporate retreat” with Jordan and her female co-workers which turned ugly when they found themselves getting yelled at for taking smoke breaks or drinking wine. During the retreat, Jordan was said to have started a “foodfight” after becoming possessed by what she later described as a “spirit in the room” who made her do it.
An employee named Faith Pabon, who was born Jewish and raised her children Catholic, was fired for opposing these practices.
Another former employee named Francine Pennisi, who worked for the company for six years, told the court that the office “did a switchover to the weirdness” in 2007 when Jordan became a consultant to the company. “If you weren’t a follower of Denali Jordan or Onionhead, you would be fired,” she added.
In a statement issued after the ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was a party to the lawsuit, they agreed that the United Health violated federal law by coercing 10 employees to engage in religious practices at work and by creating a hostile work environment for nine of them. The jury also found the company guilty of violating federal law by firing Faith Pabon, who opposed the practices.
Even though attorneys representing United Health tried to say these practices were not religious, a judge ruled otherwise and said that the practices did constitute a religion.
“The aunt, employed by CCG [Cost Containment Group, Inc., which is the parent company of United Health] as a consultant and fully supported by CCG's upper management, spent substantial time in the company's offices from 2007, implemented the religious activities at the workplace and had a role in employee hiring and firing. Nine victims said the religiously-infused atmosphere created a hostile work environment for them, and the jury unanimously agreed.”
Amy Traub, a lawyer for United Health, said her client planned to challenge the damages award.
“Our clients will weigh their options for further litigation of the claims, if any, once a judgment is made final,” she said.
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