In 2011, more than 40 employers in corporate America paid a collective $60 million in settlements or unfavorable court judgments in workplace discrimination lawsuits brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Minnesota employer 3M was one of those companies, paying $3 million to settle age discrimination charges brought by the EEOC after it laid off hundreds of workers over the age of 45.
The 3M case garnered quite a bit of media coverage. As it turns out, publicity is actually the EEOC's latest enforcement strategy in workplaces in Minnesota and across the country.
According to a recent statement by the EEOC's general counsel, class action lawsuits are a way that an agency with limited resources can maximize its impact. For example, instead of filing a lawsuit on behalf of one worker at a time, EEOC investigators look for patterns of discrimination against multiple -- perhaps hundreds -- of workers at a single company. Potential areas of inquiry might involve the employer's policies regarding hiring, pay, promotion or termination.
The EEOC hopes that the press coverage typically accompanying such large-scale litigation will send a message to corporate America about complying with anti-discrimination laws.
Notably, the EEOC tried to make class action lawsuits against corporate employers a priority back in 2006. However, budget cuts during the Bush administration interfered, resulting in staffing cuts by almost 25%. When funding was restored under the Obama administration, the agency resumed its efforts, with dramatic results: the number of active investigations increased from 50 in 2006 to nearly 600 last year.
Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, "Government turns heat on employers over job bias," Sam Hananel, Aug. 16, 2012
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