An age-bias suit against retail giant Walmart was tossed Thursday when a judge ruled that a woman who charged Walmart with discriminating against older workers didn't have enough statistical evidence to prove her claims.
Elsie Crowell and eight other employees filed suit against Walmart in 2010 in New York federal court, seeking $20 million in damages. They claimed that the company systematically replaced older workers with younger ones and that management created a hostile work environment for older employees. Crowell, who began working at the Walmart store in Monticello, N.Y., in 1998, when she was 58, charged that she was forced to retire in April 2009 because of the poor working environment.
In a letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2009, Crowell's lawyer Cory Rosenbaum, wrote, "Older employees, such as door-greeters, were ridiculed with comments such as 'Why doesn't she retire?' 'She shouldn't be here,' and 'She's causing problems for everybody.' Rob Sparks, a co-manager, allegedly said 'that lazy ass just gotta go.' "
In Walmart's response to the complaint, the company denied all allegations of a discriminatory or hostile work environment, and charged that the plaintiffs lacked sufficient evidence to support any of the claims.
On Friday, Judge George A. Yanthis said Crowell's evidence was insufficient, siding with Walmart's motion to dismiss. “Simply stated, there is nothing in this record to suggest that Crowell’s supervisors or Wal-Mart management created working conditions that were so intolerable that they would have compelled a reasonable person in the same situation to retire,” Yanthis wrote. “Crowell may not rest solely on her assertions in the complaint."
A Walmart spokesperson said today that the company is satisfied with the ruling. "We're pleased with the judge's decision to dismiss the case; we value all of our associates and its our policy to treat them with dignity and respect," said Gregg Rossiter.
The largest company in the world has a history of troubles with age discrimination. In 2005, Walmart caught flak when an executive vice president proposed that the company should redesign its health benefits to attract a "healthier, more productive workforce." In an internal company memo that was made public by WalMart Watch, a nonprofit group allied with labor unions, Executive Vice President Susan Chambers said doing this could potentially save the company $670 million by 2011.
At the time, Walmart said that the company's intent "was not to dissuade unhealthy people to apply for jobs at Wal-Mart.... It was to provide programs to our associates that help them live longer or healthier lives," the Los Angeles Times reported.
But employee-rights lawyers said this would provide strong ammunition for Walmart employees charging age discrimination. "The memo is a cesspool of legal violations," employee-rights lawyer Jeffrey Winikow told the L.A. Times.
More recently, Walmart came under fire for removing door-greeters from their positions at the entrance to the store. The work was typically assigned to older workers, who cannot lift heavy loads.
In a letter to Walmart Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke, a workers organization called Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) wrote that members were "especially concerned about greeters who have physical limitations because they are elderly, disabled or have other medical conditions. We fear that they will be unable to perform under the requirements of their new positions and be pushed out of their jobs."
Rosenbaum viewed both the memo, and the decision to remove the door greeters, as evidence of a broader culture of age discrimination.
"My opinion is that they're doing this to get rid of older people who are making more money," he said. "The older people cost Walmart more money in benefits and wages, and in reality, whether you're paying a cashier $15 an hour or $7, they do the same work, and the company knows this." Rosenbaum is currently pursuing another age discrimination lawsuit against Walmart, on behalf of a plaintiff at a different Walmart store.
This report has been updated to include a comment from a Walmart spokesperson.