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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

lead plaintiff in Wal-Mart case started out working at Missouri store UPDATE: Supreme Court Case vs. Walmart, Men making more than women to be heard Tuesday

Christine Kwapnoski at home in Bay Point, Calif., on March 17, 2011. (AP Photo)

March 29, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing the high-profile Wal-Mart gender discrimination case today, which has been called the largest job discrimination lawsuit ever.
I noticed a mention in an Associated Press story earlier this week that one of the six plaintiffs in the case first complained of being passed over for promotions when working at a store in Missouri.
So I started snooping around to find out more about the Missouri connection and here's what I found:
Christine Kwapnoski started working as a cashier at a Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club in Grandview, Missouri in 1986. She was 22 at at the time. Grandview is on the western edge of the state, near the Kansas border.
According to her court declaration, Kwapnoski received good evaluations at the Grandview store and often expressed her desire to be promoted to management. But promotions did not materialize. In the meantime, she said she observed that some of her co-workers, most of them male, would be suddenly moved into higher positions as soon as they became available and before she had a chance to express interest in those jobs.
In 1993, she moved to Concord, Calif. with the promise of a $2 an hour raise at a Sam's Club there, but she said she never got the raise. For more than a decade, she continued to express her interest in becoming a manager, but watched as men she had trained received promotions above her.
Finally, in June 2001 -- two weeks after the lawsuit was filed -- she was promoted to a management position. In her new role, a male supervisor later asked her to "doll up" and to "blow the cobwebs off my make-up," according to the court brief.
Kwapnoski continues to work at that Sam's Club in California.
The issue the Supreme Court is expected to rule on is whether the case can go forward as a class action on behalf of all women who work at Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer has argued that the lawsuit is too broad in including women in many different positions.
The plaintiffs' website -- walmartclass.com -- also list declarations from 115 women around the country who claim they have been discriminated against by Wal-Mart. The list includes eight other women from Missouri.
One of the women -- Jaime Lanois -- said she started working at a Wal-Mart in Springfield, Mo. when she was 15. A couple years later, she said a male stock employee sexually assaulted her when he put his hand down her shirt and grabbed her. When she complained to management, she said the employee was given just a verbal warning. She was not aware of the employee receiving further punishment.
Lanois later worked at a different Wal-Mart store in Springfield and ended up resigning in 1998 in part out of frustration for being passed over for promotions by less-qualified male employees.
The Supreme Court is not expected to release its decision in the case until June.


Court to take up huge sex bias claim vs. Wal-Mart

By MARK SHERMAN | Associated Press |
Sunday, March 27, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Christine Kwapnoski hasn't done too badly in nearly 25 years in the Wal-Mart family, making more than $60,000 a year in a job she enjoys most days.
But Kwapnoski says she faced obstacles at Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club stores in both Missouri and California: Men making more than women and getting promoted faster.
She never heard a supervisor tell a man, as she says one told her, to "doll up" or "blow the cobwebs off" her make-up.
Once she got over the fear that she might be fired, she joined what has turned into the largest job discrimination lawsuit ever.
The 46-year-old single mother of two is one of the named plaintiffs in a suit that will be argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. At stake is whether the suit can go forward as a class action that could involve 500,000 to 1.6 million women, according to varying estimates, and potentially could cost the world's largest retailer billions of dollars.
But the case's potential importance issue goes well beyond the Wal-Mart dispute, as evidenced by more than two dozen briefs filed by business interests on Wal-Mart's side, and civil rights, consumer and union groups on the other.
The question is crucial to the viability of discrimination claims, which become powerful vehicles to force change when they are presented together, instead of individually. Class actions increase pressure on businesses to settle suits because of the cost of defending them and the potential for very large judgments.
Columbia University law professor John Coffee said that the high court could bring a virtual end to employment discrimination class actions filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, depending on how it decides the Wal-Mart case.
"Litigation brought by individuals under Title VII is just too costly," Coffee said. "It's either class action or nothing."
Illustrating the value of class actions, Brad Seligman, the California-based lawyer who conceived of and filed the suit 10 years ago, said the average salary for a woman at Wal-Mart was $13,000, about $1,100 more than the average for a man, when the case began. "That's hugely significant if you're making $13,000 a year, but not enough to hire a lawyer and bring a case."
The company has fought the suit every step of the way, Seligman said, because it is the "biggest litigation threat Wal-Mart has ever faced."
A trial judge and the federal appeals court in San Francisco, over a fierce dissent, said the suit could go forward.
But Wal-Mart wants the high court to stop the suit in its tracks. The company argues it includes too many women with too many different positions in its 3,400 stores across the country. Wal-Mart says its policies prohibit discrimination and that most management decisions are made at the store and regional levels, not at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.
Theodore J. Boutrous, Wal-Mart's California-based lawyer, said there is no evidence that women are poorly treated at Wal-Mart. "The evidence is the contrary of that," Boutrous said.
The company is not conceding that any woman has faced discrimination, but says that if any allegations are proven, they are isolated. "People will make errors," said Gisel Ruiz, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for people, as the company calls its human resources unit. "People are people."
Ruiz paints a very different picture of the opportunities offered women at Wal-Mart. She joined the company straight from college in 1992. "In less than four years, I went from an assistant manager trainee to running my own store," she said. "I'm one of thousands of women who have had a positive experience at Wal-Mart."
Kwapnoski, who works at the Sam's Club in Concord, Calif., is one of two women who continue to work at Wal-Mart while playing a prominent role in the suit. The other is Betty Dukes, a greeter at the Walmart in Pittsburg, Calif.
"It's very hard for anyone to understand how difficult that is and what courage that is," Seligman said of Kwapnoski and Dukes. "They're Public Enemy No. 1 at Wal-Mart and they are known for their involvement in this lawsuit. Nevertheless, they get and up and go to work every day."
Kwapnoski didn't want to discuss any issues she faces at work as a result of the suit.
She said she has seen some changes at Wal-Mart since the suit was filed in 2001. The company now posts all its openings electronically. "It does give people a better idea of what's out there, but they still can be very easily passed over." she said. "But before you didn't even know the position was open."
The suit, citing what are now dated figures from 2001, contends that women are grossly underrepresented among managers, holding just 14 percent of store manager positions compared with more than 80 percent of lower-ranking supervisory jobs that are paid by the hour. Wal-Mart responds that women in its retail stores made up two-thirds of all employees and two-thirds of all managers in 2001.
Kwapnoski said she and a lot of women were promoted into management just after the suit was filed, although she has had only a couple of pay increases in the nine years since. She is the assistant manager in her store's groceries and produce sections.
Now, she said, promotions are back to the way they were before, favoring men over women.
She said she's hoping the long-running court fight will force Wal-Mart to recognize that, stories like Ruiz's aside, women are not valued as much as men are and that her bosses will begin to "make sure that good men and good women are being promoted, not just men."
Briefs in the case: http://tinyurl.com/4ckzfz5


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