Court: Female Workers Not Entitled to Pension "Bridging"

August 22, 2003 ( - A group of retired female power company employees who charged that their pensions were illegally diminished when they were fired during the 1960s for being pregnant have lost their legal fight over the issue in federal court.

>US District Judge Ann Montgomery of the US District Court for the District of Minnesota threw out a lawsuit by the four retired employees of Minnesota Power, ruling that they could not rely on ERISA, the Equal Pay Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prove their case because the laws were passed after their terminations. Minnesota Power, a unit of ALLETE, is a Duluth-based power company serving northeastern Minnesota.

>According to Montgomery’s ruling, plaintiffs Noreen Maki, Lucille Johnston, Dolly Hable, and Ann Stenstrom worked at the company during the 1960s when policy called for women who got married or became pregnant to be automatically fired. The company changed the policy to only cover married women who became pregnant in 1963 and then abolished it altogether in 1970.

>The four defendants were out of the workforce until their children were grown and then were rehired by Minnesota Power in the 1980s. Now retired, the four argued in their lawsuit that the company illegally did not give them pension credit for their prior 1960s service.

>Minnesota Power argued the case should be dismissed because it abandoned the marriage or motherhood firing policy in 1970 and because it had turned down the plaintiffs’ requests to credit their earlier service nearly five years go.

Building a Bridge

>In her ruling, Montgomery pointed out that Minnesota Power’s pension plan did not include a “bridging of service” provision until 1976. The provision stated that non-continuous service – such as the plaintiffs’ service during the 1960s – would be credited for pension purposes only if the length of time they originally worked for the company was longer than the intervening break.

>Minnesota Power changed the provision in 1987 to allow “bridging” if the intervening break was less than five years and then decided to allow either method in a change in the 1990s. With service breaks between 15 and 22 years, the plaintiffs didn’t qualify for “bridging” because their breaks were longer than their prior service, the judge pointed out.

>Montgomery also said the company has turned down “numerous” other requests for “bridging” in cases involving women fired for marriage or motherhood.

Current Violation

>The bottom line, according to Montgomery: the plaintiffs could not prove they were being discriminated against by not being allowed to “bridge’ their pensions because they couldn’t show the company was acting illegally now.    “ALLETE’s current system is gender neutral,” Montgomery wrote in the ruling. “Accordingly, no present violation exists in ALLETE’s current system, which makes the continuing impact of the 1960s policy a paper tiger.”

“Interesting,” Montgomery continued, “to bridge the gap in Plaintiffs’ intervening breaks in employment would create a distinction based on sex by favoring female employees with breaks precipitated by pregnancy or marriage, where male employees with employment breaks for other reasons would not be credited.”

The case is Maki v. ALLETE Inc., D. Minn., No. 02-4154 ADM/RLE, 8/18/03).