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Wal-Mart will pay millions in bias case

The country's largest private employer, retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., will pay $11.7 million to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit that contended the company didn't hire women at its London distribution center because of their gender.

The settlement is thought to be the largest ever against Wal-Mart in a single discrimination suit, said officials with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The agency filed the lawsuit, alleging Wal-Mart violated federal rules by hiring men for jobs in the warehouse but excluding women who were equally or better qualified.

"It is satisfying to know that the EEOC's efforts will allow the women in Eastern Kentucky affected by Wal-Mart's discriminatory practices to better themselves and their families," Aimee McFerren, an EEOC attorney, said in a statement.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company was pleased the lawsuit had been settled.

"These claims do not reflect Wal-Mart's continuing commitment to build an even more diverse and inclusive workplace through hiring and training initiatives," the spokesman said. "We respect and value the unique talents each associate contributes to the company's ability to make a difference in the lives of our customers."

The EEOC filed the complaint in 2001 on behalf of Wal-Mart employee Janice Smith. It claimed that supervisors at the distribution center hired mostly men ages 18 to 25 as "order fillers" and passed over Smith's transfer request because she is a woman.

The EEOC later added other women to the lawsuit. Thousands could be eligible for various amounts of back pay or compensation if they applied for jobs and were not hired from Jan. 1, 1998, to Feb. 15, 2005.

A commission expert estimated that 71 percent to 82 percent of female applicants were rejected for the job based on "common female names" on job applications, court records indicate.

A disproportionate number of men in the job was "statistically significant and highly unlikely to have occurred by chance," the EEOC argued.

Brenda Overbey of Laurel County said that when she sought a job at the distribution center in 1999 or 2000, a male interviewer asked whether she could lift a 150-pound bag of potatoes over her head. When she said no, he essentially told her "women weren't needed," she said. Attorneys investigating the case for the EEOC contacted her, she said.

Overbey said she has since gotten a job at another factory, doing a job similar to the one she sought at Wal-Mart.

About 4,000 women who could be involved in the settlement will get letters during the next two or three months, said Nancy Dean Edmonds, lead attorney for the EEOC on the case.

The EEOC also has set up a telephone number — (317) 226-5485 — where people may get information.

A trial in the case was scheduled to start Monday, but the EEOC and Wal-Mart finalized a settlement that day instead.

In addition to being lengthy, the case was contentious at times. At one point, for instance, the EEOC asked a judge to hold Wal-Mart in contempt for not providing some information.

Wal-Mart did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Along with the $11.7 million payment and up to $250,000 in administration costs, Wal-Mart agreed to give a certain number of order-filler jobs to women.

The company, with 869,000 women among its 1.4 million employees in the United States, also agreed not to discriminate in hiring and to provide anti-discrimination training.

The distribution center in London, where goods are shipped to Wal-Mart stores around the region, was dedicated in late 1995 at a ceremony where then-Gov. Brereton Jones spoke. Wal-Mart invested $56 million in the center, a news report said at the time.

Charlie Pennington, economic development director for Laurel County, said about 900 Wal-Mart employees work at the center, while 100 drivers with a contract trucking company haul from the distribution center.

Pennington said the facility is well-regarded, contributing to civic endeavors and paying wages above the local average.

"The people that get jobs out there are very pleased to get them," he said.

Pennington said he doubted Wal-Mart would pull out of the center because of the settlement, given the investment the company has made.

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