Despite having applied for the position of route manager, Michelle Hennick was hired for the lower-level job of new account specialist for Schwans, a direct frozen-food seller. Hennick later sued the company, claiming that it went back on a promise to hire and train her for the route manager's job and that the company made her working conditions intolerable.
But the case caught legal watchers' eyes for another reason. Hennick also claimed sex-based wage discrimination and, as her evidence, pointed out that at least one male worker was paid more than she was for equal work.
Schwans argued that its decision not to promote her was based on business judgment, not discrimination. But a federal district court said there was enough evidence to let the case go to trial. It said a woman can establish a case of sex-based wage discrimination simply by showing that she was paid less than just one male employee of comparable status. (Hennick v. Schwans Sales Enterprises Inc., N.D. Iowa, No. C00-3024-MWB, 2001)
Advice: Courts don't have to look at broad trends to find that you're violating the Equal Pay Act. One slip-up is enough. You can successfully fend off an equal-pay claim by proving that the pay disparity is justified by one of four factors: a merit system, a seniority system, a system that bases pay on quantity or quality of production or a differential based on any factor other than sex (such as experience or education).
Two things about this company's gender makeup influenced the judge: the absence of any female managers, plus managers' statements that it was more important for "the guys" to get manager training.
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