Older Workers

By Robert J. Grossman Aug 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, August 2003Are You Ignoring Older Workers?

'Chump Change'

After 34 years running eight different Woolworths stores in the Northeast, Donald Russell, 53, was nervous. Woolworths had fallen behind the competition; stores lacked modern technology and were stranded in decaying inner cities. By the late 1990s, the number of Woolworths stores plummeted from a peak of 9,000 to 450.

Then changes started to occur. Woolworths began operating as the Venator Group in 1998. (It later changed its name to Foot Locker.) More important, a new executive team came in to save the once proud chain; initially, Russell was elated.

We were the old-timers who had helped Woolworths keep going, he said. It wasn't that we were so great, but we were driven by the way we were paid--base pay and a percentage of the bottom line net profit from the store. Mentally the store was ours, so it wasn't unusual for us to work 60 hours per week. And the hourly people who worked for us were the same. They were loyal to a fault.

Soon it became clear the bosses were planning a major house cleaning. Store managers like Russell were assigned the dirty work.

We were told to cut the old-time employees who had been with us for years, who had been making more than minimum wage, with medical and retirement plans, he says. These people were told their jobs were being eliminated. Then I had to go out and hire part-time hourly workers at a little more than half the salary.

Though he was upset, Russell played along, hoping to salvage his career. But before long, he too began to feel the heat. They made it clear that they thought every Woolworths manager over 39 was an idiot, was lazy, didn't want to change and had no idea how to run a retail store. It wasn't so much what they said, but how they said it. Soon, I realized I was being set up.

Company inspectors seemed determined to show that Russell couldn't do anything right. One guy was trying to say that my store was dirty. Three times he ran his hands across counters and didn't find dust. Finally he found some dust on the top of a picture frame and cited it in his report.

Two weeks later, Russell was fired.

Believing he was a victim of age discrimination, Russell consulted a Boston law firm. They told me Id need $10,000 up front, and I didn't have it. So he joined hundreds of workers from stores all over the United States in a class-action lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging Foot Locker with age discrimination.

Foot Locker didn't​ do the right thing; it was blatant, says Michele LeMoal-Gray, one of the EEOC attorneys who represented Russell. The managers who came in had the mandate to change the workforce. They did it with name-calling, egregious changes in schedules and changing job assignments aimed at harassment, hoping people would resign.

Meanwhile, Russell tried unsuccessfully to find another job. I thought with my background and experience I could go anywhere in retailing, but the only job I could find was at half my salary. Instead, he cashed in his pension and started his own pet store in East Providence, R.I.

The litigation dragged on, delayed by the Sept. 11 attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center buildings where the records of the case were stored.

Foot Locker eventually closed the Woolworths division and focused its 40,000 workers on specialty retailing through its Champs and Foot Locker stores.

Then, in October 2002, Foot Locker entered into a consent decree with the EEOC. Russell and 764 others shared in a $3.5 million payday amounting on average to about $4,000 per person.

The EEOC claimed that this victory was an example of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in action. But for the workers, mostly low-paid hourlies, the victory rang hollow. It's chump change, Russell says. I was really disappointed, but I had no choice but to settle.

Peter Brown, vice president of investor relations and treasurer of Foot Locker, says the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing. We wanted to avoid litigation and decided to settle the lawsuit as a business decision. He refused to comment further.

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