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Frequent Job Bias Leaves Little Recourse, Gays Say


Larry Brinkin, who mediates cases for the commission, often secures a cash payment from the employer for the worker. The process is far less expensive than going through the courts. In recent years, Brinkin said, he has noted a trend toward complaints involving small and medium-size companies.

In addition to Levi Strauss and Digital Equipment, Lotus Development Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., is at the forefront in confronting the issue of sexual orientation head-on. Lotus recently broke new ground by agreeing to provide health and other benefits to "spousal equivalents" of gay and lesbian employees.

Many such cutting-edge companies also have recently installed "managers of diversity" who run programs designed to make employees more comfortable with the vast cultural and lifestyle differences that are increasingly evident throughout corporate America.

"We're a company that values diversity," said Susan Aaronson, U.S. manager of diversity at Digital. "It feels riskier to me not to have (a policy on sexual orientation)."

At Digital, an "open door" policy allows employees to tell concerns about discrimination to a manager with the promise that the conversation will be confidential. Aaronson acknowledged that "there have been examples where there is discrimination," and occasionally managers who were discriminatory have been fired.

Yvonne Alverio, manager of diversity at Lotus, said her company finds that making gay workers feel comfortable about their sexual orientation in the workplace can actually improve productivity, saving the company money in the long run.

Some legal experts argue that many municipal ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians have no teeth because there is no enforcement body.

But San Francisco's law survived two challenges last year. American Telephone & Telegraph and Western Union, defendants in separate cases, both argued that the law was unconstitutional because the state Legislature should have authority in all matters of employment discrimination.

The court disagreed, but further challenges could be mounted, said Paul Freud Wotman, a San Francisco attorney who is representing Verette in the 24 Hour Nautilus case.

"The good thing about the (city) ordinance is that, not only can you get damages, but you can get attorneys' fees as well," Wotman said. "It makes it more worthwhile."

In the 24 Hour Nautilus suit, Verette says he was not considered for employment because of his sexual orientation. He alleges violations of the right to privacy and of the state Labor Code based on a landmark state Supreme Court ruling in 1979.

Wotman, as a gay law student at Berkeley, was a party to that suit, filed against Pacific Telephone & Telegraph on behalf of former phone company employees. The court ruled that gays were protected from job discrimination based on gay or lesbian political activities or affiliations. The state attorney general went further, concluding that these provisions prohibit a private employer from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Pacific Bell agreed to pay $3 million to resolve the former employees' claims. Pacific Telesis, the parent company, has a policy against discrimination based on sexual preference.

Wotman also represents Jeffery Collins, a San Francisco man who said he was wrongfully fired by Shell Oil Co. because he is homosexual. In June, a Superior Court judge awarded Collins $5.3 million, the largest verdict ever handed down in such a case.

In 19 years at Shell, Collins had been given high marks for performance, the judge noted. He had been promoted nine times and, when dismissed, was earning more than $115,000 a year as a manager. He was fired after an invitation he had prepared for a gay party was found by a colleague in the company's copy machine room.

Collins sued in 1986, alleging breach of contract, discrimination based on sexual orientation and violation of his right to privacy. Proving that Collins had been wrongfully let go because he is gay was made easier, Wotman said, by a Shell executive's testimony that he was bothered by the activities described in the invitation.

Shell has a written policy stating that sexual orientation is not a consideration in the company's employment practices.

Wotman said Shell has made "substantial though not yet reasonable offers" to settle.

One company that stands out in its policies is Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, a Tennessee-based restaurant chain. In February, it fired several gay and lesbian employees in line with a policy declaring that the company would not employ workers whose sexual orientations "fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society."

A store general manager, in a report about one firing, said cook Cheryl Summerville was being dismissed "due to violation of company policy. The employee is gay."

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