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Woman Got Fed Up at Work, Then Got Even--in Court

March 18, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Week after next, Muriel Kraszewski of Fullerton will receive a check for $420,822, plus interest, from State Farm Insurance Co. Nobody died. No accident is being settled. The money represents what the U.S. District Court in San Francisco figures she lost as a State Farm employee by not being allowed to do what she does best: sell insurance--not as someone's "Girl Friday" but as a full-fledged insurance sales agent.

The reason she was not allowed to do that, concluded the court, is because she is a woman, and State Farm was thus practicing sex discrimination. As a result of Kraszewski's successful litigation, State Farm will now be required to adjudicate the sex discrimination claims of other women employees over the last 13 years, a process that may cost the firm upwards of $300 million in damages in California alone.

To say that Muriel Kraszewski doesn't feel sorry for State Farm would be the understatement of the year. She is downright gleeful.

"Let me give you the number for those women to call to file a claim," she said. "It's 1 (800) 822-5000. State Farm has had to hire a bunch of lawyers and staff 4,000 square feet of office space to deal with the expected complaints. And all because they wouldn't give women equal job opportunities with men until they were forced to."

She pondered a moment, then added. "I think I did State Farm a favor. I opened up a whole new group of sales agents for them, so now they'll have a much greater variety of employees to help them do a better job. I brought them into the 20th Century."

She is an unlikely person to strike such a thundering blow for feminism. Kraszewski is a 52-year-old grandmother, raised in a Midwestern farm family with deeply conservative roots. "I've never seen myself as a feminist," she said in the wonderfully direct way she talks. "I just wanted equal pay for equal work. I know I helped women, even though I didn't start out to do that. In the beginning, I just wanted revenge."

She got it--in spades--which illustrates the other side of Kraszewski. The grandmother image is accurate only until Kraszewski goes to work. Then she becomes the sharp, articulate, effective executive who appeared for a lunch interview. Trimly dressed, short hair, exuberant eyes, altogether in charge of herself and what she is saying. This is the woman who has become one of Farmers Insurance Group's leading Southern California agents since she was denied that opportunity by State Farm.

Kraszewski is still very conscious of the roots that shaped her. Of sturdy Scandinavian stock, she was born and raised on a prosperous dairy farm about 70 miles north of Minneapolis. She went to business school in Chicago, then to work for the Santa Fe railroad there. That is when she met her husband, Robert, who was then a junior in college, studying optometry and worrying about the military draft. Muriel and Robert were married in 1954 and moved to Dearborn, Mich., where she worked for a mortgage company and he took additional schooling. When Robert passed the age limit for the draft, the couple decided to have a look at California before he set up his practice.

"Neither of us had ever been there," Kraszewski recalled, "and we both wanted to see what it was like. We left in the middle of a snowstorm, and when we hit Los Angeles, we knew we'd never go back."

While her husband took his boards before practicing in California, Muriel got pregnant. She spent the next six years being a homemaker while Robert worked for several clinics before going into business for himself in Yorba Linda, where he still practices today. Muriel, meanwhile, was restless.

"When (our son) Rob turned 7, he was in school from 8 to 5, and I was totally bored," Kraszewski said. "I had to do something. So that's when I went to work for two State Farm agents in Montebello--as a secretary and a sort of Gal Friday."

She worked there six years, until the family moved to Anaheim and she tired of the commute. She took another job briefly, spent a summer in Minnesota helping her parents through an illness, then went to work for a State Farm agency in Whittier.

"It was in Whittier," she said, "that I started thinking: Why don't I do this for myself? I liked all the guys I worked for, and they treated me well, but I was doing most of the work and was earning $10,200 while they were making anywhere from seven to 10 times that much. So I figured if I'm doing everything anyway, why don't I get my own agency."

She started asking around, among the district and regional officials of State Farm. It was casual at first, and the answers she got were casual. She was told, she said, that a couple of widows of agents took over selling roles "and it didn't work out." She was also told that it was essential to go out at night and sell and that that wasn't safe for a woman.

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