IT redundancies lead to ageism lawsuit

Richard Walstrom sensed something was wrong during a job fair last May, when he saw some of his IT colleagues, who had also been...

Richard Walstrom sensed something was wrong during a job fair last May, when he saw some of his IT colleagues, who had also been told they were losing their jobs at Best Buy.

"There was a high percentage of people with grey hair," said the 57-year-old Walstrom, one of 44 former Best Buy IT workers who filed a class-action lawsuit last week claiming that the electronics retailer engaged in age discrimination when it made them redundant. The plaintiffs range from 40 to 71 years old, with an average age of 51. 

The redundancies were announced in April, when Best Buy said it planned to outsource its IT operations to Accenture, following a smaller round of cuts in October 2003. 

"We believe these claims are without merit and intend to vigorously defend the action," said Best Buy, which said that the average age of its 3,700 employees was 35. 

When it first announced the outsourcing contract with Accenture, Best Buy said that only 40 of its 820 IT staff would remain with the company. The retailer expected about 650 workers to receive comparable job offers from Accenture and continue working at Best Buy's offices. The other employees were told they would be made redundant. 

According to the lawsuit, 126 IT workers were made redundant in June. The plaintiffs' lawyer Stephen Snyder said 82 of those workers were at least 40 years old - the minimum age required to file an age-discrimination claim in the US.

Thirty-one of the plaintiffs are workers who were dismissed in June. The 13 others lost their jobs in 2003.

Snyder said the Best Buy case involves the largest number of plaintiffs that his firm has represented in an age-discrimination complaint.

"Computer industry employees are particularly vulnerable to age discrimination because of this commonly held perception that older individuals can't keep up with new technology," he said. "As with any stereotype, that may apply to some people, but it doesn't apply to others." 

He added that the most recent performance reviews for each of the plaintiffs had indicated they were "solid performers" or better. 

"If you're doing your job well, getting good reviews and merit bonuses, you don't expect to get dumped," Walstrom said of his redundancy. "In that respect, it was a surprise." 

Walstrom, who worked at Best Buy for almost seven years, was the manager of the company's database support group until September 2003 when the group was shifted from operations to Best Buy's database development team. Walstrom said he soon learned from his new boss that his job was going to someone else.

"The guy picked to replace me had no experience managing databases," Walstrom said. "He had been a project manager. But he was about 20 years my junior. You look at that in hindsight and start figuring things out." 

Not every former employee eligible to file an age-discrimination claim against Best Buy has done so. Snyder said workers who accepted redundancy pay-offs were required to sign a document releasing the company from all claims, including age-discrimination complaints.

Carol Sliwa writes for Computerworld

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