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Saturday, July 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Company to pay, change practices to end gender case
By Shirleen Holt
Mary Beck feels vindicated.
The former Boeing worker will receive a modest six-figure slice of the $40.6 million to $72.5 million settlement in the sex-discrimination lawsuit that bears her name.
But for her and other women involved in the suit, another victory lies between the lines of the 64-page agreement tentatively approved by U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman yesterday.
Under the settlement, Boeing must revamp hiring, overtime, promotions and complaint practices that, according to the suit, for years had favored the male majority.
"It's not about the money," Beck said. "It's about the injustice that all the women have gone through."
Ending more than four years of litigation, Boeing agreed to pay a total of between $40.6 million and $72.5 million to as many as 29,000 current and former female employees who worked at various Puget Sound sites after February 1997.
The company denies any wrongdoing but agreed to settle "because it is in the best interest of the company, its employees and its shareholders," spokesman Ken Mercer said yesterday.
Beck, 51, worked in tooling and wiring at Boeing sites for 18 years before being laid off in 2003. She said she was often paid less than men for doing the same work and was denied job training and promotions.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit claimed that before Boeing began boosting women's wages in 2000, salaried women were paid an average of $1,000 a year less than male peers, and female hourly workers routinely received less overtime than male workers.
Beck said that when she complained about unequal treatment to the company's internal Equal Employment Opportunity office, her male bosses punished her, first by denying her overtime and then by transferring her to another site.
"Women at Boeing, once they go to EEO they're marked," she said.
"For a lot of these women the case was about being devalued," said Mike Helgren, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "That was perpetuated when the women felt they had no place to go to complain."
Boeing agreed to several changes in hiring, pay and promotion practices, as well as in the investigation of complaints about those practices.
The agreement requires Boeing to curb what lawyers called "excessive subjectivity" in its hiring, pay and promotion practices. In general, the company will no longer use applicants' past salaries to decide starting pay, a practice that perpetuated wage gaps because women tend to earn less than men in most jobs.
Also, managers must assign overtime by rotation instead of preference; use a list of standard interview questions when hiring so that all candidates are judged by the same criteria; and use a standard job description when hiring to prevent gender bias.
Under the settlement, investigators will report directly to headquarters rather than to the groups they were examining. Likewise, a group's manager may no longer overrule an investigator's sanctions.
Boeing, which has steadfastly denied that it treats its female employees differently, says the proposed practices aren't that far from current procedures.
"I think there are some modest changes, some tightening and some additions to already-existing practices," Mercer said. "But the overall goal is to enhance what's already there."
It may take many months for the women in the Beck case to receive a check. As with most class-action suits, those who want a piece of the settlement have to file a claim. Then an administrator must figure out how much to award each person, depending on her job history and other factors.
The more plaintiffs in a class, the longer that process takes, said Jeffrey Needle, a Seattle civil-rights lawyer and board member for the Washington Employment Lawyers Association.
Other legal entanglements can also slow payment. For instance, more than 9,000 Microsoft "permatemps" who won a $97 million settlement in 2000 have yet to see a dime. Disbursement in that case was delayed by a dispute over attorneys' fees, then by the process of trying to figure out the size of each claim, and finally by the Internal Revenue Service, which hasn't decided how much tax should be withheld from the checks.
Likewise, some 15,000 African-American workers who won a $11.3 million settlement in a race-bias case against Boeing are still waiting for their money. An appeals court overturned the 1999 settlement because of a dispute over the size of some payments. The case is back in federal court and, barring another settlement, could go to trial in 2005.
Last month Boeing won a bias suit brought by Asian Americans and other minority employees who complained they were paid less than their white peers. A federal jury found that the class, made up of a mix of ethnicities including Afghani and Filipino, was not discriminated against.
The settlement in Beck v. Boeing comes near the 40th anniversary of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans job discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or disability, among other things.
Since then, some awards in gender-bias lawsuits have climbed into nine figures. State Farm settled a sex-discrimination suit for more than $245 million in 1992. In 2000, the U.S. government agreed to pay a record $508 million to 1,100 women who said they were denied jobs or promotions at Voice of America, which was run by the U.S. Information Agency.
That record settlement could be dwarfed, however, if Wal-Mart agrees to settle a gender-discrimination case brought by 1.6 million current and former female employees, the largest class of its kind. No trial date has been set for that case.
On Monday, the Wall Street brokerage firm Morgan Stanley agreed to settle a sex-bias suit for $54 million. The class-action suit, brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, covered up to 340 women who said they were denied equal pay and promotions.
Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or email@example.com
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