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The EEOC blasted the proposed settlement. Harper said the relief was inadequate -- "and I'm not just talking about money. I'm talking about jobs and injunctions, what they plan to do in the future and how they plan to do it."
When Claudine Wilfong found out about the Kansas City shuffle, she wasn't surprised.
"I just felt like they were trying to get one over on the women again," Wilfong says. "They're looking for any way to get rid of us." The amount the company wants to pay would just be "a slap on their hands, and it was really nothing compared to what they did and how many women's jobs are gone."
But on March 6, when the lawyers had been expected to converge in U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith's courtroom, the lights were dim and the doors were locked.
Rent-a-Center had blinked.
On February 28, Rent-a-Center's two top executives had huddled in Plano with EEOC lawyer Harper and St. Louis lawyers Sedey, Ray and Schlichter.
Chief executive officer Mark Speese and president Mitch Fadel defended the company's dearth of female workers, saying it was an unintended consequence of the company's recent 75-pound lifting requirement. But the plaintiffs' lawyers noted that St. Louis store manager Tammy Shell was on record as saying that women job-seekers didn't fill out applications after learning about the 75-pound lifting requirement. She had admitted to a reporter that she'd never actually tested any applicants to see whether they could lift 75 pounds and that workers probably didn't even need to be able to pick up that weight because lifting was done with hand-trucks and dollies.
By the end of the meeting, the Rent-a-Center execs agreed to scrap the earlier settlement and pay $47 million -- almost four times the amount they'd already agreed to pay in Kansas City.
Under the new agreement -- announced by the EEOC on March 7, the women plaintiffs -- employees, ex-employees and unsuccessful applicants -- were also able to extract from the company a number of precedent-setting conditions: Rent-a-Center agreed to fill 10 percent of job vacancies during the first fifteen months following the settlement with women who had been fired. It agreed to create a human-resources department. Quarterly reports must be filed for the next four years describing the company's steps to end discrimination, detail complaints and provide statistical information. Discrimination complaints will be decided by a court-appointed special master.
In a statement announcing the proposed settlement, Rent-a-Center president Fadel said, "While our track record of providing a nondiscriminatory workplace is strong, we believe the proposed settlement is in the best interest of Rent-a-Center given the costs and uncertainty of litigation."
Although the company officially denies wrongdoing, Speese and Fadel will appear in a company video stating that Rent-a-Center won't tolerate discriminatory behavior. Rent-a-Center will also try to find women to serve on its all-male board of directors.
The new settlement agreement, which must still be finalized by U.S. District Court Judge David R. Herndon in East St. Louis, covers 5,300 women. If approved, it will end the East St. Louis lawsuit as well as a separate EEOC action brought against the company in Memphis, Tennessee. It is also expected to supersede the Kansas City agreement.
Wilfong says Rent-a-Center "did the right thing by settling with us." And she's thrilled about the conditions being imposed on the company. "I'm glad that women have the option of going back if they want, and it's good there is going to be an HR department," she says. "I mean, that is just a normal thing that should have to be done."