In 2012, General Mills laid off around 850 employees under its ‘Project Refuel’ restructuring program, around half of which were from its Twin Cities plant in Minneapolis.
A group of those laid off – 14 in total, aged between 42 and 64 – have now filed a lawsuit against General Mills claiming age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
The plaintiffs had filed an administrative charge with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) but are now are calling for a jury trial against General Mills and are seeking back pay, benefits and full attorney costs.
General Mills said it was aware of the lawsuit claims but that the company “stands by its employment decisions and sees no merit to these claims”.
Probed further about the claims made against it, its staffing policies and how it planned to move forward with the case made against it, a spokesperson for General Mills said that was the only response it was providing.
Laid off and replaced by younger staff
The plaintiffs allege that following their layoffs, General Mills started to hire and promote younger employees to replace them.
Law attorney Stephen Snyder from Snyder & Brandt, representing the plaintiffs, said when data was pooled together, it showed a much higher rate of lay-offs among employees aged 40 and over.
“The Project Refuel employee terminations predominantly adversely affected employees aged 40 or over, while General Mills disproportionately retained younger employees," he said.
"While the Project Refuel terminations were occurring, General Mills posted notices for open positions in some of the same work groups from which employees were being terminated. General Mills filled many of these open positions with new hires who were younger than the terminated employees who had been performing those jobs.”
The ex-employees were even asked to train the younger new recruits, he outlined in the lawsuit filing.
As part of the lay-offs, all employees signed a release agreement with terms stipulating they could not bring forward any class, collective or representative proceeding. The employees were told they would not receive any severance pay unless they signed and returned the agreement form.
Snyder said this form fraudulently waived two important rights granted to employees under the ADEA – the right to a jury trial on disputed issues of fact and the right to proceed collectively in one action with others who are ‘similarly situated’.
He said signatures received from each ex-employee were not ‘willing and voluntary’ because General Mills had failed to make disclosures necessary with employment termination programs.
Under the ADEA’s passage of Older Workers Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA), companies must ensure ‘older workers are not coerced or manipulated into waiving their rights to seek legal relief under the ADEA’. For example, under employment termination programs, the company must include the job titles and ages of all individuals eligible or selected for the program – something General Mills allegedly failed to do.
Continued age discrimination?
The lawsuit argues that General Mills has continued its pattern of ‘age-based terminations’, citing examples of lay-offs in December 2014 where data suggests the worst affected were those aged 40 and over.