A former employee’s lawsuit that accuses one of the state’s largest private employers of gender bias is heading to trial at a time when the issue is gaining political prominence.
Deborah Morse was an internal sales representative at Pratt & Whitney in 2007, when she first complained to her boss that she was underpaid.
In March 2008, she told Pratt’s human resources department that she had been discriminated against because she is a woman and that her boss — her former uncle by marriage — wasn’t treating her with respect, giving her chances for advancement, or paying her fairly.
Although court papers show that Pratt gave her a nearly 21 percent raise in April 2008, at the same time as 223 others, based on performance and a “market equity analysis,” Morse asked for back pay and made a discrimination complaint to the state when the company refused her request.
In 2010 she filed a federal lawsuit alleging that she was underpaid for years because she was a woman and that, when she complained, the company retaliated by reducing her responsibilities.
Pratt asked U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall to dismiss the case, but last week Hall cleared the way for a trial on the central claim of pay discrimination. The company declined to comment on the ruling or the case. Morse says a critical issue is at stake.
“I just think women need to be paid equally for the same work as men. Just because you’re a man, doesn’t mean you should be making more money,” she said. “Equal jobs, equal pay, and get the recognition of doing the equal job as well.”
Equal pay for women has been gaining political prominence recently. President Obama mentioned it in his inauguration speech last week. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at helping women close the wage gap. And Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, on the same day Hall cleared the case to go forward, asked two commissioners to study and suggest remedies for the wage gap in Connecticut.
Hall’s ruling quotes Morse’s deposition. According to Morse’s account, when she asked her boss for either overtime or a promotion and a pay raise, he said — while his boss was sitting in the room — that “girls who had husbands with jobs did not to make as much money as men since men were the primary earners in the family.”
At the time, Morse was paid $46,451. A woman with her same job and title earned $48,456, and a man at her labor grade and title was paid $60,000, according to data released by Pratt as a result of the lawsuit.
Morse said in an interview this week that when she went to human resources, they asked her if she’d be satisfied with a 4 percent raise in a year when the raise pool was 3 percent. She said no. “Four percent of not so much is not so much,” she said. She said they would send her request up the chain, but said 10 percent was going to be the best she could do.
Pratt & Whitney, a jet engine maker based in East Hartford, does not comment on pending litigation, Communications Director Tizz Weber said.
Court documents submitted by Pratt say that in April 2008, having done a study of salaries, company officials decided 224 workers were not being paid enough based on their performance and “market equity analysis.”
In her department, Tooling Support Services, 14 people received raises at that time, ranging from 3.3 percent to 20.6 percent — and Morse’s was the largest, bringing her to $56,039. The other woman at her grade was given a 16 percent raise, bringing her to $56,209, documents showed. Pratt argued that men also received large raises.
Derek Otis, Morse’s lawyer, said: “The timing of everything reeks, and is highly suspicious.” He said the company would have a hard time explaining to a jury that she was properly paid just before a nearly 21 percent raise resulting from an “equity adjustment review.”
Morse said her raise was proof that she had been underpaid and asked that it be made retroactive for three years.
Pratt’s motion to dismiss the case said that the human resources department tried to clear up Morse’s “confusion” about what the raise meant. Human resources officials told her its investigation determined she had been treated fairly.
“Compensation did not agree that you were underpaid at all,” the company said, and her raise was based on “merit, performance and market equity analysis” as part of a companywide “equity adjustment review.”
In court documents, the company said that even if Morse could prove she was underpaid, that doesn’t mean it was from gender bias.
Morse, 55, moved to Tennessee in 2009, after her husband, Earl, a Pratt machinist for 42 years, took a buyout and retired. She had worked for Pratt for 11 years.
Morse said she has not worked since she moved. She currently lives on the widow’s portion of her husband’s Pratt pension, and her own Pratt pension. She plans to go to work as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home soon, though she would rather return to Connecticut and her old job.
The judge noted that the size of the raise alone does not prove gender discrimination, but she wrote in her Jan. 23 ruling that a jury might conclude there was discrimination, after weighing the “husbands” comment and the lower pay for both women compared with the man with the same job title and pay grade.
Morse also said in her deposition that her boss told her he wouldn’t approve tuition reimbursement for a woman because “she would waste classes on basket weaving, knitting or cooking.”
Hall criticized Pratt for using the after-raises data to argue she was paid comparably to men — her complaint was about her earlier, lower salary — and for saying during oral arguments that workers at the same pay grade and title are not necessarily “similarly situated,” the language in the 1963 Equal Pay Act. Hall wrote that in a motion, Pratt compared Morse’s salary with the salaries of employees in the department at her pay grade and lower, and argued that she was not paid substantially less than the average.
“The court does not see how Pratt can now argue that employees within that group are not similarly situated to Morse,” Hall wrote.
Pullman & Comley attorney Daniel Schwartz, who represents employers in employment discrimination and other labor matters, blogged about the case. He wrote: “The case illustrates the difficulty for employers where there are significant disparities in pay among employees. Even if the employer adjusts an employee’s salary unilaterally, it may still be held liable for its past actions.
“What else can be done? For one, when making adjustments to an employee’s salary, an employer can make those changes retroactive to the statute of limitations time frame. It’s not a perfect solution by any means (and costly at that), but given the costs of litigation now, more money paid up front may minimize the amount spent going forward.”
Otis said the salary adjustments make this an interesting and unusual case.
“It’s not often that the defendant comes forward and says, holy crow, you’re right, you’re horrifically underpaid,” he said. “This is going to be a fun case to try.”
No trial date has yet been set.
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