WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Boca Raton resident Christina Going asked her boss at Wal-Mart what she could do to get a higher-paying position, the answer sounded like it was designed to give her ammunition for a discrimination lawsuit.
“Single mothers like you don’t deserve to make as much. You should be in a two-income household,” Going remembers being told.
On Thursday, Going joined 10 other Florida women in a federal lawsuit, accusing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of intentionally discriminating against women in pay and promotions. The women who lent their names to the lawsuit hope it will help hundreds of thousands of other women who they say were victims of Wal-Mart’s discriminatory employment practices at hundreds of Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Clubs along the Eastern Seaboard.
“Wal-Mart is definitely a man’s club,” said Going, 59, who worked at the Wal-Mart in Clewiston, Fla., from 1999 to 2003. “Women were almost like second-class citizens.”
According to the lawsuit, the women not only were denied promotions into management, they also were paid far less than men who were doing similar jobs. Going learned that a newly hired man who supervised a different department was earning $5 an hour more than she was. Pay disparity between men and women in salaried positions was as much as $25,000 a year, according to the suit.
The lawsuit is one of four filed nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2011 threw out a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of an estimated 1.5 million women nationwide who worked at Wal-Mart since December 1998.
Wal-Mart officials contend that the lawsuits filed in California, Texas, Tennessee and now Florida will meet the same fate as the one that went to the Supreme Court.
“These cases are nothing more than recycled claims driven by the same plaintiffs’ lawyers whose arguments were considered and rejected by the Supreme Court.” said Randy Hargrove, spokesman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based company. “The Supreme Court’s decision was clear — these claims are unsuitable for class treatment because each individual’s situation is so different.”
Ted Leopold, whose Palm Beach Gardens law firm filed the suit in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, disagreed. While the Supreme Court found that the national class-action lawsuit, the biggest in history, involved too many people with too many varied claims, the regional lawsuits will allow women to prove that there was a pattern of discrimination that affected them all.
Last month, a U.S district judge in California rejected Wal-Mart’s request to dismiss the lawsuit filed there. Charles Breyer acknowledged that the Supreme Court ruled there was no evidence Wal-Mart operated under “a general policy of discrimination” nationwide.
“To be sure, the basic theory of the (women’s) claims has changed little, but … the Supreme Court’s decision rested not on a total rejection of plaintiffs’ theories, but on the inadequacy of their proof,” he wrote. The women, he said, should be given additional time to find it.
Working together, lawyers have begun gathering that proof, Leopold said.
Reading from a recently uncovered internal memo, Leopold said Wal-Mart officials acknowledged that the company was “behind the rest of the world in promoting women to management ranks.” At a 2004 meeting of district managers, a top executive told his lieutenants that a singular focus was the key to success. “Women tend to be better at information processing. Men are better at focus single objective (sic),” he said, according to the complaint.
Employment numbers reflect that belief, Leopold said. While women make up two-thirds of Wal-Mart’s estimated 1 million-employee workforce, less than 15 percent of store managers are women.
Susan Midolo, who lives in Sarasota, claims she repeatedly asked to be allowed use her experience as an auto mechanic. Told she wasn’t strong enough for such work, she got the job after bench-pressing 250 pounds, something not required of male workers, according to the suit.
But, when she asked about becoming an assistant manager, she was told women were barred from supervisory jobs in the auto repair shop. Instead, she was promoted to training coordinator. In addition to training mechanics, she was required to clean the bathroom, make food for company meetings and bake cupcakes for male employees’ birthdays. After three years on the job, she resigned in 2000.
After repeatedly being denied promotions, raises and equal pay, other women said they did the same.
“I was a single mother and instead of getting ahead I was getting behind,” Going said. “I didn’t want my children to think it was OK that they treated me that way.”
Zenovdia Love, 41, who lives in Lakeland and worked for Wal-Mart at various locations for 17 years, voiced similar views. “They didn’t value my length of service or my loyalty,” she said. While Wal-Mart had good benefits and other perks, she said, she wanted to advance, which proved to be an impossibility.
Going suspects Wal-Mart officials expected the women would eventually just go away, particularly after the Supreme Court threw out the roughly 10-year-old lawsuit.
“They figured no one’s going to do anything about it,” she said. “Well, here we are. We aren’t going away.”
©2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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