Bias bill: $45 million

The long legal battle between Detroit Edison and more than 1,300 of its workers ended last week when an arbitration panel awarded $45.15 million to workers to settle three class action suits accusing the utility of race and age discrimination.

The lawsuits grew out of a 1991 company reorganization plan that included reducing Edison’s workforce from 11,000 to 8,300 employees. The lawsuit alleged that minorities and older workers suffered disproportionately as a result.

Edison and the employees, all nonunion, agreed to settle the case last year by allowing an arbitration panel to choose an amount between $17 million and $65 million.

"I am kind of numb myself," says Luther Gilford, a former Edison computer technician fired in 1993 after 15 years of service. "I guess I have been dealing with it so long I don’t even believe it’s over." Gilford, an African-American, was the first to sue Edison for race discrimination as a result of the reorganization.

The formula for dividing the settlement among plaintiffs is yet to be determined. They are not expected to see the money until early next year.

Last week’s settlement includes two other class action lawsuits filed against Edison on behalf of Hispanic and older workers.

This is not the first time Edison was hit with a hefty judgement. A class action lawsuit was filed against the company in 1971 for alleged race discrimination. At the time the utility giant employed more than 12,000 people, but only about 400 were African-Americans, who held low-level jobs. Workers won a $5 million judgment in that case.

Employees in the recent lawsuits alleged that the gains made by black, Hispanic and older workers over the last 25 years were lost when they were demoted, terminated or forced to retire because of the reorganization.

As part of the settlement agreed to last year, the company has instituted several programs intended to prevent future discrimination.

One program, "Upward Mentoring," pairs Edison executives with lower-level employees who keep them in touch with daily worker issues.

John Washington — hired at Detroit Edison in 1967 as a boiler operator and a plaintiff in both the first race discrimination suit filed against the company and the Gilford suit — helped create the company’s new anti-discrimination programs. As part of the process, he was paired with Edison’s Chief Executive Officer Anthony Earley. Earley is very committed to improving the company, says Washington. The CEO convinced Washington to stay till 2003 and help implement the programs rather than retire next year.

"Tony Earley and some senior executives don’t want us to go," says Washington. "There is a lot of oversight that we need to do and can do."

"We make sure (the programs) are addressing most needs of the employees," says Sandra Miller, vice president of human resources. "We think they will be very beneficial to the work force."

"We are hopeful that this can be put in the past and (we can) move forward with a new working environment," adds Edison spokesperson Scott Simons.

But disputes remain. Last December, union employees at the company’s power generator plants sued Edison for alleged sex harassment, and sex and race discrimination.

Washington says that Edison’s refusal to settle the union employee suit is evidence that the struggle is not over. Gilford also was uncertain whether the lawsuits are the last word in the clash with the company. "I don’t know if they made the kind of impact in dealing with minorities that I thought it would," says Gilford. "Time will tell."

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