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A WOMAN'S PLACE IS AT THE CASH REGISTER?

When Kathleen M. York applied for a job in the lumber section of the Victorville (Calif.) Home Depot Inc. in 1988, she expected a warm welcome. York, 44, had spent four years in inventory and orders at her husband's lumber business. Instead, she says, other workers told her ''girls don't work lumber.'' York took a cashier's job and says she spent six years trying to move to lumber, where she could get the merchandising experience needed to advance. While she eventually became assistant manager, York says, she was earning $37,000 when she left in 1994, compared with $50,000 for men at her level.

Home Depot says York exaggerated her prior experience, and disputes her salary allegations. But now York is a plaintiff in one of three sex discrimination suits filed against Home Depot Inc. since 1994. The suits allege that women are funneled into cashier slots, which does not give them the experience needed to move up, and results in unequal pay. They also allege patterns of sexual harassment. The company denies the charges and vows not to settle.

York's suit, with class-action status covering 20,000 former and current female workers and 250,000 applicants in Home Depot's West Coast unit, goes to trial on Sept. 22. It will be argued by Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, recent winners of a $81.5 million settlement from Publix Super Markets Inc. in a similar suit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may join a second suit filed in three other regions; a third targets the Northeast.

A loss could force Home Depot to pay millions and change its hiring practices. But Marian Exall, senior counsel for employee relations, says cashiers do get promoted. She says that female cashiers predominate because that's where most women who apply to Home Depot have experience. She adds that the greater numbers of qualified male applicants--rather than bias--leads to more men in higher ranks. Still, the suits have jarred the company. ''This lawsuit is without merit,'' Chairman Bernard Marcus shouted at the annual meeting. ''Because of us, you see women in an industry where there were no women.'' The question is whether there are enough.

By Nicole Harris in Atlanta


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Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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