A class-action lawsuit that accuses Boeing of discriminating against 28,000 current and former female workers in Puget Sound will go to trial May 17, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
The lawsuit alleges that Boeing has systematically paid women less than men and promoted women less than men.
The suit, which was originally filed in February 2000, further alleges that Boeing did nothing to correct pay gaps between men and women even after its own internal studies uncovered evidence of large and widespread gender pay differences in the 1990s.
Boeing insists it has never had companywide policies that fostered or condoned pay discrimination against women and contends the suit lacks merit.
"These claims do not reflect how we do business," said Ken Mercer, a Boeing spokesman, "and we believe the plaintiffs' lawyers are using broad brush strokes to unfairly paint a negative perception of how the employees of our company treat one another."
Last month, a federal judge in Tulsa certified a similar sex-discrimination case against Boeing in Oklahoma as a class action.
Boeing has saved hundreds of millions of dollars since the mid-1990s by paying women less than men, Michael Helgren, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued before U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman Wednesday.
"It was very profitable for (Boeing) executives to underpay women," Helgren said.
Barbara Berish Brown, Boeing's lead counsel, countered before Pechman on Wednesday that Boeing has companywide policies that specifically advise managers that salary discrimination of any kind is not allowed.
"The fact that a few rogue managers may not have followed it" is not evidence of uniform discriminatory pay practices, Brown argued.
The lawsuit covers women who worked at Boeing at any time from Feb. 25, 1997, to the present. Female executives and female engineers are excluded because none of the 12 original named plaintiffs in the suit worked in those job categories, Helgren said.
Potential damages are limited to underpayment of wages from 1997 to the present. Pechman ordered plaintiffs' attorneys to send written notices to members of the class by early next week.
She also ordered the plaintiffs' lawyers to create a Web site by next week that can act as a clearinghouse of information pertaining to the case.
Pechman cleared the way for the case to go to trial when she issued a written order yesterday denying two motions for partial summary judgment, one sought by Boeing and one sought by the plaintiffs. The motions asked the court to short-circuit the litigation and rule in favor of their respective sides because of undisputed evidence in their favor.
Pechman was not convinced. "Genuine issues of material fact remain on both sides of the case," she wrote.
The progress of the Puget Sound litigation stands in contrast to similar suits filed against Boeing in Wichita, Kan., St. Louis, Mo., and Southern California, all of which ended well short of a trial.
On March 31, a St. Louis judge ruled that while some Boeing managers may have discriminated against female employees, the data did not show evidence of companywide discrimination.