Jul 25, 2008
A group of women and Hispanic men who in 2006 settled a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the Los Alamos National Laboratory have finally received their payout — $12 million divided proportionately among 3,186 class members, and another $4.4 million for their lawyers, according to an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit alleged that women and Hispanic men were routinely paid less than their white male counterparts, and were overlooked for promotions.
"This is one of the largest such lawsuits in New Mexico that there's ever been in this state, and one of the most important considering the very primary role that the Laboratory has in Northern New Mexico and the work force," plaintiffs' attorney John Bienvenu said.
Class representative Yvonne Ebelacker, of Santa Clara Pueblo, said most plaintiffs received their settlement checks in early July. Those checks were reportedly between $1,500 and $10,000, based on a formula that determined each employee's share of lost pay, Ebelacker said.
Ebelacker said she personally received about $120,000 back in November 2007, because she was one of the five main plaintiffs who originated the lawsuit — along with Laura Barber, of Santa Fe, Yolanda Garcia, of Chimayó, Loyda Martinez, of Santa Cruz, and Gloria Bennett, of Los Alamos. Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval said each of those five women received $123,500.
Ebelacker said she had to pay $38,000 in taxes on the settlement, and it wasn't really worth putting herself on the line during the six-year struggle.
"What did I land out with for putting up with all I did?," Ebelacker said. "Nothing, really. In the long run that's why people say class actions are very hard, because the haul is long and what you get out of it is very minimal."
Ebelacker said she worked in procurement at the Lab for 30 years; she left in 2003 while the lawsuit was ongoing.
"You get to a certain point in your career, and you start getting the feeling sometimes that they don't think you're important anymore, or valuable," Ebelacker said. "In my case there was retaliation and stuff, because they made life really hard there."
The case began in December 2003, when Barber and Veronique Longmire filed a federal class-action suit claiming there was documented, widespread gender discrimination in pay and promotions at the Lab, court documents state. Garcia, Martinez, Bennett and Ebelacker filed a separate class-action suit in state District Court in January 2004 on behalf of Hispanic female employees.
The two cases were eventually consolidated, and throughout 2004 another 59 women joined as plaintiffs, including state Rep. Debbie Rodella (D-La Mesilla). Rodella did not return calls seeking comment.
Bienvenu said the plaintiffs' case was built on a statistical analysis of the Lab's salary structure. Although the negotiated settlement was fair, it still only compensated for part of the losses that employees suffered, Bienvenu said. According to court documents, all class members — defined as women and Hispanic men who were employed by the Lab between Dec. 10, 2000, and June 1, 2006 — were eligible to receive a portion of the settlement if they submitted a valid claim form. The size of the class was estimated at approximately 5,500 people.
In settling the case the University of California, which held the Lab's management contract during the period in question, did not admit the existence of any gender or race-related pay discrepancies, citing policies against discrimination, court documents state. Any such disparities were the result of "legitimate business factors unrelated to sex or race," court documents state.
Sandoval noted in an e-mail that after the case was settled, Lab management was transferred to Los Alamos National Security, a consortium that includes the University and three private companies.
"(Los Alamos National Security) is committed to implementing best business practices, including developing employees and creating a work environment to achieve employee and Laboratory success," Sandoval wrote.
The transition to a new contractor foiled the plaintiffs' attempt to write binding, long-term policy changes into the settlement agreement, court documents state. The limited terms contained in the agreement include an initiative to equalize pay for internal and external hires, manager training in equal-employment and diversity, provision of child care and other prescriptives.
"If the contract hadn't changed out, one of our goals in our lawsuit had been to where we wanted policy changes," Ebelacker said. "Our lawyers told us basically we can't hold a new entity to anything, because they're not part of the lawsuit."
After the Fact
Ebelacker said she believes the discrimination she experienced stems from inadequate job training. Everyone knows the way to make money at the Lab is to move into a management position, but people who receive promotions are often not prepared to responsibly lead or manage employees, she said.
"My personal feeling is they have a lot of supervisors that are not trained in management, and trained as supervisors," Ebelacker said. "I think that's where it starts."
In response, Sandoval repeated his earlier assertion.
"This specific allegation — insufficient training — wasn't litigated per se, but for the reason stated above, we feel that the Lab and (Los Alamos National Security) is committed to ensuring that all employees receive all required training," Sandoval wrote.
Bienvenu said if an employee, whether at a public or private entity, believes they have been discriminated against, they should seek an attorney's advice and assistance. He or she should also abide by all internal grievance policies, and consider contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the state Labor Department's Human Rights Division, Bienvenu said.
The Commission's Albuquerque office can be reached at (505) 248-5201; the numbers for the Division office in Santa Fe are 827-6838 or (800) 566-9471.