Former employee fired for refusing to return to work, Pfizer maintains

Becky McClain of Deep River, a former Pfizer Inc. molecular biologist who claims to have been injured in an accident involving stem cell research at the company's Groton research labs, speaks April 28, 2009 at the California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day event in San Francisco. The video from which this screen shot was taken, produced by the Labor Video Project, is available at www.blip.tv/file/2061380.
Becky McClain of Deep River, a former Pfizer Inc. molecular biologist who claims to have been injured in an accident involving stem cell research at the company's Groton research labs, speaks April 28, 2009 at the California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day event in San Francisco. The video from which this screen shot was taken, produced by the Labor Video Project, is available at www.blip.tv/file/2061380.

Hartford - A former Pfizer Inc. scientist who accuses the pharmaceutical giant of firing her in retaliation for pressing safety complaints actually lost her job for refusing to return to work, said company attorney William J. Anthony as a much-watched civil suit opened Monday in U.S. District Court.

Becky McClain of Deep River, a molecular biologist who worked nearly a decade at Pfizer's research campus in Groton, is seeking compensation on an allegation that her former employer retaliated against her for filing Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints.

The suit also alleges that Pfizer terminated McClain's employment because she exercised her free-speech rights in pursuing the complaints about poor safety conditions at the Groton labs that she says put her health - and that of her colleagues - at risk.

Another charge - that Pfizer engaged in willful and wanton misconduct by exposing McClain to a lentivirus that caused serious health problems and prevented her from working - was thrown out by Judge Vanessa Bryant a few weeks before the start of the civil trial.

But workers' rights organizations, at a press conference Monday in the Abraham Ribicoff Federal Building, said McClain's health allegations are integral to her case.

"We feel, in fact, that you can't separate her illness from the retaliation," said Steve Zeltzer, executive director of the California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day, a volunteer organization that tries to protect against workplace injuries and deaths. "People are getting nauseous and sick ... and not to allow this (part of the story) at this trial is a mistake."

Steve Schrag, a member of the Connecticut Council on Occupational Safety and Health, tied the McClain case to the problems that workers face across America, including the six who perished last month in the Kleen Energy plant explosion in Middletown. He pointed out that about 500 people die on the job every month - equivalent to two planes going down, without nearly the same amount of attention such events normally would incur.

"Becky McClain and the Middletown gas plant explosion are two examples of what workers face every day," Schrag said in a statement read at the press conference. "Workers are afraid to raise their voice about workplace hazards because supervisors can find a million ways to make their life miserable, including firing them."

Pfizer, in a statement issued just before the press conference, said McClain refused to return to work over an 11-month period "despite numerous and repeated efforts by Pfizer to secure her return to the workplace."

Pfizer also said OSHA concluded, after an eight-month investigation of McClain's safety-violation claims, that her complaints were "without merit."

McClain has said previously that the claims were dismissed because OSHA has weak laws regarding safety at biotech labs, which she and others allege are essentially unregulated for emerging technologies such as the stem-cell research in which she was involved.

"We have thoroughly investigated Ms. McClain's claims and our investigation concluded that her workplace was safe and that she was not infected by any virologic materials while she was employed by Pfizer," company spokeswoman Liz Power said in an e-mailed statement.

Inside the courtroom, where the six jurors and two alternates were instructed to ignore press reports of the issues surrounding the case, most of Monday's proceedings revolved around testimony by McClain's former supervisor, John Hambor of Madison, who has since left Pfizer. Hambor, who confirmed that he and McClain had been involved in a heated exchange in 2003 after which he gave her a relatively low performance review, was cited in the lawsuit as threatening her job if she made too big of an issue out of lab safety - a charge he vehemently denied.

Hambor did admit, however, to testifying falsely in a 2007 sworn deposition about whether he had been reprimanded for the incident in which McClain has claimed he used the f-word, pointed at her and backed her against a wall. Hambor originally said he did not receive a reprimand, but Monday testified that he had been reprimanded - in a written note he signed two-and-a-half years after the incident - though he admitted only to using the f-word.

Hambor did agree that something in a biological containment hood apparently had made him, McClain and another worker ill in 2002. But he said he had not expressed a desire for more testing of the lab's air after an initial test failed to identify the source of the contaminant in the containment hood that caused McClain and others to fall ill.

Larry Rose, a professor in the occupational health and safety department at the University of California at San Francisco, suspects McClain was infected with a genetically engineered lentivirus during a malfunction of the containment hood, according to a statement he released Monday.

"An adequate medical workup of Becky would have required Pfizer to release the experimental records regarding the identity of the lentivirus," he said. "Pfizer refused to release the genetic sequence information," citing, according to McClain, trademark concerns.

But issues of McClain's exposure to viruses have been largely cloaked from jurors. The judge met with attorneys for both sides for a 20-minute bench conference early in the trial, after which McClain's attorney, Bruce E. Newman, who had mentioned the use of viruses in Pfizer's labs earlier, largely steered clear of mentioning what had infected his client.

McClain, expected to begin testifying in court today, has said the virus led to periodic paralysis, joint pain and fatigue.

l.howard@theday.com

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