Updated: Zhang trial begins today, will continue throughout the week

The trial of a former WKU employee who claims she was wrongfully fired began today at the Warren County Justice Center.

Junlian Zhang, a former researcher for the Institute for Combustion Sciences and Environmental Technology, claims she was fired from her job because she was pregnant.

Proceedings began at 9 a.m. with the jury selection. Pam Bratcher and Greg Stivers, the attorneys representing Zhang and WKU, respectively, questioned the potential jurors about their affiliation with WKU, ICSET and other matters related to the case.

At 11:20, the jurors were sworn in and Bratcher gave her opening remarks.

Zhang, who is from China, earned her doctorate from Northwestern University. After graduation, she learned of the opportunity at ICSET.

In the summer of 2006, Zhang interviewed with ICSET Director Wei-Ping Pan, and was given the job.

Shortly after Zhang began in August, a tense relationship with Pan formed, Bratcher said. Pan expected Zhang to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week without time off for holidays.

Bratcher said the Chinese employees at ICSET were required to work long hours because Pan controlled their visa status. If they were fired, they would lose their visa-which is what happened to Zhang just days after she revealed her pregnancy to her superiors on Jan. 17.

Because of her pregnancy, Zhang could not fly and eventually got her visa status changed to tourist after giving birth to her baby on March 1, 2007.

Now, Zhang can’t find a job because of the extensive influence Pan has in the industry, Bratcher said.

Zhang is suing for lost wages, lost benefits and pain and suffering, Bratcher said.

After Bratcher finished, Stivers used his opening remarks to tell the jurors a different story.

Stivers said ICSET employees are required to be self-sufficient, because Pan frequently travels.

Zhang was not independent enough to handle the requirements of her job, Stivers said.

Additionally, Zhang was not able to operate the equipment she was told her job would require her to use, Stivers said.

This caused ICSET to lose two contracts with customers, Stivers said.

Despite being given multiple improvement plans and being moved to another job, Zhang’s performance did not improve, he said.

On Jan. 8, 2007, Zhang had a meeting with Pan; her director supervisor; and Tony Glisson, director of Human Resources, to discuss her performance. At this time, no one knew of her pregnancy, Stivers said.

It wasn’t until Jan. 17 that ICSET learned of Zhang’s pregnancy after her supervisor asked if she was pregnant out of concern, Stivers said. At this point, Pan called Glisson to come up with a plan to protect Zhang’s safety at the lab while pregnant.

After continued performance problems, Pan recommended Zhang be fired from her job. The termination was then approved by Glisson and Deborah Wilkins, chief of staff and general counsel for WKU.

Stivers concluded by pointing out Zhang wasn’t the only pregnant employee to work at ICSET. Her supervisor was also pregnant at the time, and another researcher from China was also pregnant.

After the conclusion of opening statements, the court broke for lunch until 1:15.

After lunch, Zhang was on the witness stand for more than three hours as she gave her testimony and was cross-examined.

She testified how she worked from 8 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. every day, including weekends and holidays. She said Pan often yelled at her, telling her she was lazy and should be working 18 hours shifts, either from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. or 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.

She said the Americans at ICSET worked from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Zhang also said in her testimony that one of the main pieces of equipment she was supposed to work with was broken when she arrived at ICSET, and her supervisors were upset that she couldn’t repair it. She said her job description required only that she know how to use the equipment, not repair it.

Zhang also testified that she was told it didn’t matter whether the data she gave to an ICSET customer was accurate, as long as it was completed quickly so the customer would pay ICSET.

Zhang said that although rumors spread that she was pregnant, nobody at ICSET officially found out until Jan. 17, 2007, when she was six to seven months along.

On that day, her supervisor, Pauline Norris, followed her to the bathroom and asked if she was pregnant, Zhang said. Zhang told her she was, and Norris said was angry that Zhang had not told her sooner, because this would get her in trouble with Pan.

Zhang said Pan was angry too, and after he met with her about her pregnancy, he didn’t look at her again.

Zhang testified that she received a termination letter in the mail on Feb. 5, 2007, and when she went to discuss it with Glisson, he said he had spoken with Pan and the decision was final.

Zhang’s daughter was born four weeks premature on March 1, 2007, and since she had been fired, she had lost her health insurance, she said.

After she was fired, workers at WKU’s international office helped her change her visa status so that she could stay in the U.S., Zhang said.

She moved to California in July 2007, and has looked for jobs at universities and companies since then, but hasn’t gotten any job offers, she said.

Losing her job at ICSET “destroyed my life and wrecked my concentration,” Zhang said.

During cross examination, Stivers asked whether Zhang knew that another ICSET worker was able to repair the equipment that Zhang didn’t know how to fix. Zhang said she didn’t think that was so.

Stivers also asked whether Zhang remembered a performance evaluation Pan wrote about her which stated she had lost samples to be evaluated for an ICSET customer. She said she remembered it, but that she told Pan it wasn’t true and wouldn’t sign the evaluation. Stivers also brought up an e-mail that Pan had sent to Zhang saying that a report was overdue for the second time.

Stivers also asked if Zhang had gone home to watch a movie one afternoon when Pan was out of town. Zhang said she went home to eat lunch for an hour, and a graduate student who was with her decided to stay and watch a movie rather than return to the lab.

Stivers also asked whether Zhang was aware that Norris had wanted to know about the pregnancy sooner because she was concerned for the baby’s health since Zhang was often around chemicals in the lab. Zhang said Norris told her she was angry because she would get in trouble with Pan.

After the cross examination ended around 4:45 p.m., a recess was called until Wednesday at 9 a.m., when other witnesses are expected to be called to the stand.