By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Verizon Communications Inc. will pay almost $49 million to 12,326 current and former female employees as part of a landmark class-action lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached a settlement in 2002 against Verizon predecessors Nynex Corp. and Bell Atlantic Corp. But the total amount of the settlement was not made public until yesterday, when the EEOC completed its projections of how much would be paid in future benefits.
The final figure makes the case the largest pregnancy discrimination settlement in EEOC history. It covers women in 13 states and the District.
Nynex and Bell Atlantic were accused of violating federal law by denying women pension and other benefit accruals when they spent time on pregnancy or maternity leave.
The total compensation paid thus far is more than $25.3 million. The EEOC told a U.S. District Court in New York yesterday that it projected that an additional $23.6 million would be paid in future benefits. The announcement came after years of calculating which women were denied benefits when on leave.
"This comes out of a different era," said Eric Rabe, a Verizon spokesman. "The people who were here then by and large don't work for the company anymore. We think our record today is exemplary, and this was not an admission of having done anything wrong. It is simply a matter of trying to get this behind us to move on."
The suit alleged that the predecessor companies violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by denying women service credits for leaves of absence taken between July 1965 and April 1979. The companies also denied pension credits for child-care leaves of absence until December 1983.
Pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the EEOC rose by 31 percent from 1992 to 2005, to 4,449 from 3,385. Some of that increase reflects a growing number of women working during and after their pregnancies, but not all of it. In the same period, the percentage of working women with children younger than 18 rose by about 5 percent.
"There really remain tremendous issues concerning pregnancy discrimination in the workplace," said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney with the EEOC in New York. "More and more women are continuing to go forward to assert their rights in a way past generations were not. Some employers are getting educated and changing practices, but many are not."
Grossman's office last year sued and won a settlement for a waitress who was removed from a managerial career track, denied work assignments and told to "consider her options" after she revealed she was pregnant. Ultimately, she was fired. The woman received $145,000 in a pregnancy discrimination settlement with her former employer. The same office last month also sued Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. on behalf of a pregnant employee at a Bridgewater, N.J., store who says she was denied modified work assignments that were given to other employees with temporary disabilities.
The EEOC was joined in filing the class-action lawsuit against the phone companies by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America, unions representing Verizon workers. "This case represents an important victory for working women who should not have had to sacrifice their pension benefits because they had children," Christopher M. Shelton, a CWA vice president, said in a statement.