Coke sued for alleged unfair practices
January 28, 2013
Two former employees have launched a legal challenge to policies and practices of one of America’s leading soft drink manufacturers, claiming they were terminated or forced from their jobs unfairly amid a “good old boy” network and philosophy.
Arroyo Grande resident Samantha Caldwell, 43, and Mark Snay, 60, of Santa Maria, filed a complaint May 15, 2012, against Coca Cola alleging age and sex discrimination. Their individual actions also assert the bottling giant failed to pay appropriate overtime wages; violated the Unfair Business Practices Act; breached good faith and fair dealing; and tolerated and failed to prevent harassment.
The lawsuit, originally filed in Santa Maria where both plaintiffs worked, was moved to federal court following a petition by Coca-Cola attorneys “who claimed it would be unfair for Coca-Cola to fight in Santa Maria,” according to the pair’s San Luis Obispo County attorney, Dan McGee. The dispute is now in arbitration.
Both Caldwell and Snay held similar positions, alternately referred to in the claim as territory development manager, business development manager and account development manager.
Attorney McGee said his clients “were paid as salaried employees, without receiving appropriate overtime compensation for such overtime hours worked in violation of California law.”
Specifically, said McGee, his clients claim Coca-Cola has used “a scheme of reclassifying job titles to effectively purge older and less physically capable employees to reduce the higher expenses associated with more senior employees.”
Coca-Cola attorney Jennifer Robinson of the Nashville law firm Littler Mendelson told CalCoastNews, “Coca-Cola is taking this matter seriously, and it would be inappropriate for me to say more.”
McGee said Coca-Cola “now has imposed increased physical demands associated with the (market development positions). In so doing, Coca-Cola either intentionally or negligently created an insidiously discriminatory restriction and barrier to continued employment for those employees that are more senior and and less physically stronger. Rather than accommodating these employees, Coca-Cola chose to engage in discriminatory practices aimed at weeding out older and weaker employees in favor of younger and stronger employees.”
McGee said the company’s intent has been “to disguise an attempt to reclassify the position(s) without being required to pay appropriate overtime compensation.”
Snay, a 16-year employee of the bottling giant, told his employer in March that he would be unable to handle newly-initiated lifting requirements for restocking product. The lawsuit alleges he was “forced out of the position by Coca-Cola by the increasing pressures imposed by his supervisors.”
Caldwell, consistently ranked by her supervisors as being in the top one percent in performance evaluations, was instrumental in bringing Coca-Cola to Cal Poly, which previously had contracted with rival Pepsi-Cola for its soft drink supply.
Caldwell and Snay were told by a supervisor that their career paths were “on a death crawl.” Caldwell was told that she was ineligible for promotion “because she is a mom,” said McGee.
Job requirements and working hours changed, said the complaint, but pay did not keep pace.
His clients “were expected to physically carry large quantities of product to build merchandising displays and restocking product in large stores,” McGee said. “This entailed carrying and moving large quantities of Coca-Cola products.” He claimed this meant as many as 60 cases of product might be required to be moved at larger stores, “where six cases may have been expected as part of the prior positions.”
Coca-Cola was involved in a class action lawsuit in 2005 in which plaintiffs alleged essentially the same claims. That lawsuit was settled before trial. Subsequent to that, Coca-Cola initiated changes that now deflect class action efforts into individual lawsuits, and require employees to agree to arbitration.
That effectively creates huge legal expenses for an employee inclined to sue, McGee said.
“Decisions are made to eliminate mothers with children because they are unlikely to transfer or relocate as needed,” he said, citing one of the reasons for which Caldwell was allegedly terminated.
Older employees are handled in similar fashion, “simply by changing the job requirements a little,” McGee said. “The discriminatory behavior of Coke is rampant, not only against women — who are told to be showy to potential clients — but against seniors and Hispanics in Santa Maria, who are told not to speak Spanish.”
The attorney said the corporation “gets away with it because people need jobs. This will be a long battle, but we’d like for the world to know that this sort of thing is going on… right here in our backyard.”