Staples Must Pay $26 million for Age Discrimination

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury  hit the “Easy” button and ordered Staples, Inc., the office supply chain, to pay  $26 million in damages in an age discrimination case.

Bobby Nickel., 66, was hired in 2002 to work as a facilities manager for Corporate Express. He had positive employment evaluations until 2008, when the company was purchased by Staples Inc.  Nickel said Corporate Express’ pay scale was higher than the pay scale for employees hired by Staples.

Nickel said he was a  victim of age discrimination and wrongful termination by Staples managers who were intent upon pushing out older workers who earned higher salaries.

The jury deliberated for two days before awarding Nickel $22.8 million in punitive damage and $3.2 million in compensatory damages on February 27.

Nickel alleged that Staple’s used the following  tactics to run him out of his job as a facilities manager:

  • A supervisor prompted  Nickel  to resign.
  •  Nickel said he was disciplined for a series of minor infractions.
  • He suffered increasing levels of harassment from co-workers and a manager;  was the regular butt of jokes at staff meetings;  and was referred to as “old coot” and “old goat.”
  • A receptionist  told Nickel that she was ordered by management to provide a false statement about Nickel’s conduct but that she refused to do so.

Nickel was suspended and  fired in 2011 when he was 64 years of age for allegedly stealing a 68-cent bell pepper from the Staples cafeteria.  Nickel said he intended to pay for the bell pepper through an honor system set up by the cafeteria vendor. However,  Staples said the  taking of the bell pepper violated the company’s zero-tolerance policy when it came to “dishonesty of any kind, including theft or misappropriation of company property.”

A Staples spokesman said the company disagrees with the verdict and plans to appeal.

Staples and ‘Lactation Chambers’

Next time you need to pick up a pack of pencils or some office paper, think about Tom Stemberg, co-founder of mega-office supply chain Staples, who complained recently that President  Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act will discourage job creation by making employers funnel their capital into “lactation chambers” for new mothers.

Stemberg said on Feb. 6, 2012 that if a Republican is elected president his first order of business to help the U.S. economy should be to repeal so-called Obamacare.

Why would any parent want to support Stemberg or Staples for that matter?

CBS quotes Stemberg as stating: “Do you want [farming retailer] Tractor Supply to open stores or would you rather they take their capital and do what Obamacare and its 2,700 pages dictates – which is to open a lactation chamber at every single store that they have?”

(Since he asked, I would rather the U.S. Congress repealed  tax breaks granted during the GOP Bush administration that made the top one percent of the country obscenely rich at the expense of the rest of us.)

Stemberg says he supports breastfeeding and that his wife breastfed their children but that employers should not have to accommodate working women who realistically cannot breastfeed their children without the minimal level of support that most good employers now provide.

The Affordable Care Act does not require what Stemberg calls “lactation chambers” but merely would require employers to provide a private space other than a bathroom for employees to express breast milk. If these requirements impose undue hardship, an employer that employs fewer than 50 employees is not subject to these requirements.

Meanwhile, the EEOC last month held a hearing on the issue of pregnancy discrimination  which is rampant.  According to the EEOC:

Although pregnancy discrimination has been illegal for decades, many women are fired when they tell their employers that they are pregnant, according to Sharon Terman, a senior staff attorney with the Gender Equity Program at The Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center in San Francisco. She noted one recent case where an employer told a pregnant worker, “That’s not going to work” when it was informed about her pregnancy. The employer maintained that as a small company it couldn’t afford to grant her pregnancy leave.

Another common discriminatory response is to place an employee on forced unpaid leave as soon as the employer learns about the pregnancy. Pregnant employees are often forced to take leave early in their pregnancy when they do not need the leave; they have exhausted their leave by the time they do need it, Terman remarked.

Sometimes pregnant workers are denied accommodations that are provided to employees with disabilities, such as sitting on a stool rather than having to stand all day, taking frequent bathroom breaks and being excused from lifting heavy objects, she added.

Terman said that in one recent case a pregnant worker asked to not be exposed to toxic fumes during her pregnancy, but the manager refused and forced her to take leave. Two days before her child’s birth, her leave was exhausted.

There have been 52,000 pregnancy discrimination charges since 2001; the EEOC has recovered $150.5 million in relief for plaintiffs, testified Peggy Mastroianni, EEOC legal counsel. The plaintiffs have come from all walks of life, from janitors to teachers to senior executives, she added.

Mastroianni remarked that most pregnancy discrimination claims arise after a discharge, followed by challenges to terms and conditions of employment, followed next by harassment.

David Lopez, EEOC’s general counsel, said that many employers do not have policies against pregnancy discrimination and commented that there is “more direct evidence in this area than any other.”