Agency, workers agree on amount

Social Security to pay $7.7 million to settle charges of bias

January 16, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

After working 30 years at Social Security's complex in Woodlawn, Gilbert Jefferson was fed up.

Jefferson had been turned down for dozens of promotions by 1991, and was increasingly frustrated as he saw better jobs awarded to white males with less seniority and fewer qualifications.

So when a white male was given the management analyst position that Jefferson had sought, he began setting up meetings with other black workers at Social Security to discuss suing for discrimination. At one of the first meetings, 37 black colleagues offered to put their accounts of discrimination into writing, he said.

"It wasn't just my problem, and it wasn't just a problem for one or two people," said Jefferson, 70, of Columbia.

Yesterday, the Social Security Administration announced a $7.7 million settlement in the administrative complaint filed in 1995 by Jefferson and two co-workers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The settlement will mean cash for the 2,200 black males who worked at Social Security and might have been denied promotions and raises as far back as 1987.

As part of the settlement, Social Security officials agreed to have personnel decisions over the next four years monitored by a new oversight committee and an EEOC administrative judge.

At a news conference in Washington, Deputy Commissioner Paul D. Barnes said Social Security was admitting no wrongdoing in agreeing to a settlement.

Michael J. Kator, lawyer for the black workers, said the agreement must be approved by Administrative Judge Marlin D. Schreffler, who helped hammer out the settlement and is slated to monitor the agency's personnel actions.

Kator said the EEOC approved the complaint as a class action two years ago and agreed to include all 2,200 black males employed at Woodlawn since 1987 based on a statistical analysis of the agency's personnel decisions. The complaint was narrowed to black males because statistical data showed that as a group they were the most unfairly treated, he said

"We found when we did the statistical analysis that black women are treated badly, but not as badly as black males," Kator said.

Under terms of the agreement, Kator's Washington law firm will net $1.4 million. The 2,200 black men will split the remaining $6.3 million, with each plaintiff's award determined by the level of damages, Kator said.

Barnes said that Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart, appointed last month, agreed to the settlement because it was in the best interests of all 10,000 employees at Woodlawn.

"SSA remains committed to assure that all employees are treated fairly," Barnes said.

Barnes said that minorities make up more than 40 percent of Social Security's work force, and that 21 percent of its senior executive ranks are black.

But Jefferson and the other two men who filed the complaint said that Social Security has to change.

"It got to a point where black men weren't on the radar screen anymore when it came to promotions," said Ken A. Burden, 56, of Silver Spring.

Burden, a former human resource manager, said that he remained in the same federal employee pay level - GS-14 - for 22 years because he was passed over for so many promotions.

Harry M. Dunbar of Columbia, a father of two, said he has been denied 35 to 40 promotions since coming to Social Security in 1981. He said that after he began complaining to his supervisors, they demoted him from a GS-12 to a GS-10. "There have been some efforts at improvement, but only after this suit was filed," he said.

The settlement requires Social Security to set up a seven-member oversight committee to monitor promotions and trends in "personnel policies and practices."

Two members will be appointed by lawyers for the plaintiffs, two will be appointed by Social Security officials and the other three will be selected by those four appointees, under the agreement.

The 23-page agreement also says that individual plaintiff awards will be determined in part by the roles in the case.

The 180 plaintiffs who agreed to make $20 monthly payments toward Kator's fees are to divide $1.5 million. The 30 plaintiffs scheduled to be called as witnesses will receive an additional $2,000. Burden, Dunbar and Jefferson each will receive an additional $80,000 as the original plaintiffs.

Burden and Jefferson have retired. But the agreement specifies that for pension purposes, Burden will be promoted to GS-15, retroactive to 1998, and Jefferson promoted to GS-13, retroactive to 1996. Dunbar, who still works at Social Security, is to be promoted to GS-12, but has agreed to retire.

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