A lawsuit cleansed these 10 workers of their ex-bosses’ cultish religious ideas.
The former employees of United Health Programs of America — a discount medical plan — joined with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to win $5.1 million from a unanimous jury in Brooklyn Federal Court last week.
Their suit charged United Health coerced employees into religious practices that included odd spiritual cleansing rituals and seminars about the teachings of a wacky cartoon onion.
“I’m ecstatic. Justice was served,” said Francine Pennisi, one of the ex-employees who, along with the employment commission, sued United Health and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, in 2014.
Pennisi described United Health as “cult-like” because of its affiliation with the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, a nonprofit that says it “aims to infuse happiness and hope into everyday life.”
Harnessing Happiness uses the cartoon character Onionhead, an anthropomorphized root vegetable who teaches emotional awareness by showing the many layers of feelings.
The nonprofit was started by Denali Jordan, the aunt of United Health CEO Robert Hodes.
Jordan was a California-based consultant for the company who made monthly visits to Long Island to lead spiritual readings and prayer sessions, according to the lawsuit.
Ex-employees said they had to wear Onionhead pins and share their personal problems during the sessions.
United Health also encouraged employees to thank God for their jobs and to say “I love you” to management and colleagues, the lawsuit said.
Pennisi said she worked at the company for six years until she was fired in August 2010 for not wanting to participate in its rituals.
“If you weren’t a follower of Denali Jordan or Onionhead, you would be fired,” she said.
She said the office “did a switchover to the weirdness” in 2007, when Jordan was made a consultant.
Management had employees work with no overhead lights, according to Pennisi. She said she was also pressured to make a donation from her paycheck to Jordan’s nonprofit.
The jury also concluded at the end of the three-week trial that Faith Pabon — an employee who was born Jewish and raised her children Catholic — was fired for opposing these practices.
Pabon said in a deposition that her termination came after a weekend getaway with Jordan and her female co-workers that was billed as a corporate retreat but turned into a nightmare.
Jordan yelled at the employees for drinking wine and going on smoke breaks, Pabon said. Sobbing workers were repeatedly forced to apologize, according to Pabon.
At one dinner, Jordan started a foodfight after becoming possessed, according to the deposition.
“A spirit was in the room making her do it,” Pabon recalled Jordan saying.
Amy Traub, a lawyer for United Health, said her client planned to challenge the damages award.