BG&E plaintiff's hopes high with Supreme Court ruling

March 22, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Audrey Erickson was on the road, driving a truck somewhere between her Wheeling, W.Va., home and California when the Supreme Court announced its ruling Wednesday that women may choose to take hazardous jobs regardless of employer policies excluding them.

But her lawyer says the decision is expected to bolster her $2.2 million lawsuit against Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which she claims cost her a good job two years ago because the utility barred women from working in certain nuclear reactor areas at Calvert Cliffs.

The ban was enacted because of concerns that radiation levels could affect reproduction.

"On the face of it, it looks pretty good for Audrey," said Michael Burkey, one of her attorneys in the sex discrimination suit. "Our case was dependent on the outcome of the case decided by the Supreme Court, and I'm pleased."

BG&E declined to comment directly on the Erickson case, which is in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

But company spokesman John Metzger said the high court ruling against employer "fetal protection" policies that exclude women from certain jobs "may cause us to review our policy." The decision "could have an effect on numerous employment classifications," he said, although BG&E is not certain of the numbers of jobs that may be affected.

The BG&E radiation safety manual filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specifies that "women capable of reproduction shall not take part" in certain higher-exposure activities and that "all females will be considered fertile" unless certified otherwise by the company medical department.

Ms. Erickson, 38, who worked for a subcontractor making repairs at the Maryland nuclear power plant, claims she was barred from work as an experienced member of her team and subsequently lost her job as a radiation safety technician because of BG&E's discriminatory policy.

The case is one of many across the country in which women claim to have been denied higher-paying hazardous jobs and promotions by employers who enforce policies based on protecting the women's reproductive capability.

The Supreme Court ruling against the policy at Johnson Controls Inc., an auto battery manufacturer that barred women from high-paying but hazardous jobs because of concern about lead exposure and the possible effect on a fetus, is expected to resolve many of those grievances.

It is also certain to provoke future lawsuits against employers by women whose babies may have problems, said Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Peter Lombardi. "That's the concern of most businesses about this," he said.

The decision could result in employers cleaning up their work places, he said, but it could also prompt companies to reduce employment through high tech automation or even shipping dangerous jobs overseas, where safety rules are more lax.

Labor unions hailed the Supreme Court decision as a giant step toward employment equality for women and said it should promote safer working conditions for all employees. "The court's ruling is a vindication of our belief that women should have every right to the same employment opportunities as men," said Stan Marshall of the United Auto Workers union, which brought the suit in 1984 against Johnson Controls Inc.

"If the work is damaging to women, then it's also affecting men as well," he said. The UAW and other unions have lobbied for tougher federal exposure limits on lead and other chemicals linked with birth defects, sterility and reproductive disorders, he noted.

The AFL-CIO labor federation said it "hopes that, as a result of this decision, employers will now protect all workers by eliminating jobs hazards, rather than eliminating employment opportunities for women."

Although the number of women who have been affected by job exclusion policies is unknown, some 20 million women work in jobs where they are exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals where employers could have made such decisions, according to union estimates.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the UAWposition, listed nine major industrial employers that have adopted fetal protection policies barring fertile or pregnant women from certain jobs. They include General Motors, Gulf Oil, Dow Chemical, Du Pont, Union Carbide, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Olin and B. F. Goodrich.

The UAW, which has a national contract with General Motors, said that it has not sued GM for excluding women from certain chemical exposure jobs but that an individual union member was filing a suit.

Unions argued that fetal protection policies did not allow women to make the same economic and employment decisions as men.

"I've probably lost about $40,000 in wages," said Patricia Brinner, who has worked at the Johnson Controls plant in Louisville, Ky., for 14 years. "With my seniority, I could have bid to day [shift] work earlier, but the jobs were closed to me," said the 39-year-old mother of two. Only four of 10 departments at the plant were open to women of childbearing age, she said.

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