LOS ANGELES — Ten women who are suing the Walt Disney Company for what they have called “rampant gender pay discrimination” have added a claim involving pay secrecy, a topic that is becoming a larger part of the national conversation about workplace equality.
The court fight over equal pay at Disney started in April 2019 when two employees, LaRonda Rasmussen and Karen Moore, filed a lawsuit claiming that Disney discriminates against female workers by paying them less than their male counterparts. Since then, eight more current and former female Disney employees have joined the case, which their lawyer, Lori E. Andrus, is striving to get certified as a class action. Disney has aggressively pushed back on the entire matter, saying it maintains “robust pay-equity practices and policies” and calling the accusations “ill informed and unfounded.”
On Thursday, the women filed an expanded complaint in State Superior Court for Los Angeles County. The added section says Disney “maintains a strict policy of pay secrecy” in violation of California law. Five of the plaintiffs were told “multiple times by their superiors never to speak about their compensation (salaries, bonuses or raises) with other Disney employees,” according to the filing. One plaintiff, Chelsea Hanke, a former home entertainment manager at the company, claimed to have “direct knowledge of a female Disney employee being disciplined for disclosing her pay to co-workers.” No details were given.
In a statement, Disney said it “does not prohibit its employees from talking about their pay and looks forward to proving the falsity of this latest plaintiff claim.”
Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, it is illegal for employers to retaliate against their workers for discussing wages with colleagues. California added its own statute in 1984. The California Fair Pay Act, enacted in 2015, further protects the right of employees to openly discuss their own pay.
Silence around salaries is a societal norm, with employees themselves often enforcing the social code to protect their privacy. But equal-pay advocates — and a younger generation of workers — have been raising consciousness on the issue. Pay secrecy has been shown to hurt women because it deprives them of information they need to demand equal pay. “The opposite is also true: Pay transparency closes the gender wage gap completely,” the amended complaint against Disney contends.
“Rules about pay secrecy, written or unwritten, reinforce pay disparities in the workplace,” Ms. Andrus, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said in an email. “The women at Disney can’t be expected to fight for fair pay with one hand tied behind their backs.” Ms. Andrus noted that next Wednesday is Equal Pay Day, the point in the year at which, on average, a woman’s pay for working in 2020 and 2021 would equal a man’s pay just for 2020.
Companies of all kinds are facing increasing pressure to address questions of gender inequality in the workplace. Ms. Andrus has battled companies like Intel and Farmers Insurance over unequal wages for women. In California, for instance, lawmakers and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of Gov. Gavin Newsom, have joined in a campaign to pressure California companies to sign an “equal pay pledge.” More than 40 have agreed, including Apple, Uber and AT&T, which owns WarnerMedia.
Last month, Google agreed to pay $3.8 million, including $2.6 million in back pay, to resolve accusations of underpaying women and discriminating against female and Asian job applicants; the Labor Department had spotted pay disparities during a routine evaluation. This month, the executive branch of the European Union proposed legislation that would force companies with more than 250 employees to report on the difference in pay between men and women doing the same work.
The case against Disney remains in the discovery phase, where both sides exchange information about the witnesses and evidence they plan to use. There have been early victories and defeats for both sides.
Judge Daniel J. Buckley, for instance, granted a plaintiff request to widen the case to include claims under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. A more recent ruling, however, went in Disney’s favor: Citing attorney-client privilege, the judge rebuffed an attempt by Ms. Andrus to obtain access to an analysis that Disney lawyers commissioned in 2017 on pay equity at the company.
Still to be decided is the crucial matter of class action. Certifying the case as such would allow the plaintiffs to represent women employed by Disney in California in full-time positions (excluding those represented by a union) from April 1, 2015, onward — tens of thousands of women.
Felicia A. Davis, the lawyer leading Disney’s defense, has argued that the plaintiffs’ “anecdotal” claims cannot form the basis of a class action, in part because it would unfairly lump together women who work (or worked) in “markedly different jobs, requiring markedly different skills, effort and responsibility,” across “markedly different lines of business.”
In a previous statement, Disney said, “We look forward to presenting our response to the individual claims in court at the appropriate time.”
The 10 women are suing for back pay, lost benefits and other compensation. They also want a judge to force Disney to create internal programs to “remedy the effects of Disney’s past and present unlawful employment policies,” including adjusting salaries and benefits for other women and creating a task force that reports on the progress.
In addition to Ms. Rasmussen, Ms. Moore and Ms. Hanke, the women are Ginia Eady-Marshall, a senior manager at Disney Music Publishing; Enny Joo, a marketing executive at Hollywood Records; Becky Train, a media producer at Disney Imagineering; Amy Hutchins, a former production supervisor in a division that is now Direct-to-Consumer & International; Anabel Pareja Sinn, a former art designer at Hollywood Records; Dawn Wisner-Johnson, a former music coordinator at ABC; and Nancy Dolan, a senior manager of creative music marketing.
Several of the plaintiffs say that they have been performing work associated with more highly compensated positions, but that Disney insisted that promotions could occur only along a ladder — from manager to senior manager and then to director, for instance. At the same time, men were sometimes allowed to skip a step, according to the complaint.
“When she inquired about this unequal treatment, she was told that Disney considered one of the promoted males as more of a ‘retention risk’ because he was younger than her,” the lawsuit contends in a matter involving Ms. Dolan.
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