TRAINING COURSE SPARKS U.S. SUIT BY MARKET WORKERS

Martha Brannigan, Wall Street Journal, December 8, 1988


ATLANTA -- Eight former employees sued a local farmers market, alleging it violated their civil rights by coercing them to attend the Forum human development training sessions developed by Werner Erhard.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court here yesterday seeks to enjoin the DeKalb Farmers Market Inc. and its owner, Robert Blazer, from forcing workersto participate in the so-called New Age programs. It also seeks back pay and compensatory and punitive damages for the ex-workers who complained they were humiliated and harassed, and suffered psychological trauma.

Forum is a human potential program operated by Werner Erhard & Associates. Mr. Erhard also created Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, which he then dropped in 1984.

Edward D. Buckley III, an attorney for the market and its owner, said he hadn't seen the complaint and couldn't comment.

One worker said he was kept inside a training session and prevented from going to the bathroom. Some said they were urged to abandon their lifelong beliefs and values, to disclose intimate details about their private lives, and to embrace the Forum concepts or face discharge.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, representing the workers, said at a time when employee training sessions are burgeoning at corporations, the case could be significant in defining how far employers can impinge on individuals' freedom to require participation.

Carl Raschke, a professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, said the case highlights an increasingly significant workplace issue. ''Many of these training programs, particularly at large corporations, claim to be purely psychological, aimed at improving productivity and morale and loyalty. But in fact they are religious,'' said Mr. Raschke, who may be a potential witness for the workers.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which reviews employment discrimination complaints, said it has increasingly been receiving complaints about New Age programs in the workplace -- including a complaint filed last year by the farmers market workers -- and expects to issue a ruling on one case shortly. In September, the agency issued a policy guidance notice, saying if an employee objects on religious grounds to such programs, employers must provide ''reasonable accommodation'' unless it creates ''an undue hardship'' on the business.

Also named in the farmers market suit are Consulting Technologies Inc., an affiliate of Transformational Technologies Inc., Greenbrae, Calif.; Consulting Technologies' owner, Mike Smith, and Marty Yura, who was an employee of Consulting Technologies, and Nancy Loewnau, a supervisor at the DeKalb Farmers Market.

Transformational Technologies, founded by Mr. Erhard, isn't named in the suit and declined to comment. Consulting Technologies officials couldn't be reached for comment.

copyright 1988 Wall Street Journal


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