Human Resources

Train Against Bad Habits, and Avoid Lawsuits Like These

by Gesina M. Seiler

The adage “old habits die hard” seems particularly applicable to a rash of lawsuits recently filed and settled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There is no shortage of cases such as these, and they are good reminders that strong antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies, ongoing training, and stringent oversight are absolutely essential for an employer to avoid becoming a defendant.

First up: A Wisconsin employer agreed to pay $140,000 to settle an age discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of two employees. The agency alleged that the company essentially fired the employees for having a birthday—or more accurately, for having too many birthdays.

Age Discrimination

Stack Bros. Mechanical Contractors is a heating and plumbing contractor operating in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Randy Virta, a service manager, and Karen Kolodzeske, a bookkeeper, worked for the company for 16 and 25 years, respectively.

Virta’s employment was terminated on February 14, 2014, allegedly because he turned 62. In May 2014, Kolodzeske objected to the company’s plan to fire her at 62, saying it was illegal to terminate her employment because of her age.

Stack Bros. retaliated against her by docking her pay and informing her that her position would be changed to part-time and that she would have to reinterview to keep her position. In September 2014, Kolodzeske turned 62, and her employment was terminated.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit against Stack Bros. claiming the company discriminated against Virta and Kolodzeske by firing them simply because they turned 62. The consent decree settling the lawsuit prohibits Stack Bros. from engaging in discrimination in the future and requires it to pay $95,000 to Virta and $35,000 to Kolodzeske.

In addition, the company must pay $10,000 of the employees’ attorneys’ fees and train its managers and employees on its obligations and employees’ rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Smokin’ Spuds, Inc., and Farming Technology, Inc., are integrated potato-packing companies operating in Colorado. According to the EEOC, supervisor Samuel Valdez engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior, including making sexual comments and gestures, propositioning female employees, touching female employees’ buttocks and breasts, and pulling a female employee onto his lap on at least one occasion. Complaints to management went unheeded, and in some circumstances, female employees were fired after complaining. As a result, the harassment continued for years.

The EEOC claimed the employees were subjected to regular verbal sexual harassment and unwelcome physical contact. The agency also claimed that the companies unlawfully discharged three female employees in retaliation for refusing to submit to the harassment or complaining about the harassment to management.

In addition to paying $450,000 in monetary damages, Smokin’ Spuds and Farming Technology are subject to a 3-year consent decree that stops them from engaging in employment practices that discriminate on the basis of sex (including sexual harassment) and retaliating against employees who oppose such practices.

The companies must report their compliance with the decree to the EEOC. The consent decree requires the companies to:

  • Provide extensive training on employment discrimination laws for employees, supervisors, and HR personnel;
  • Send letters of regret to the affected women;
  • Post a notice regarding employees’ right to be free from harassment and retaliation;
  • Distribute equal employment opportunity policies; and
  • Establish a consent decree monitor with various oversight responsibilities.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we cover a few more cases that are strong examples of why antiharassment and antidiscrimination training are crucial.