Loose Lips Buy Trouble for Rent-A-Center

December 31, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - An Illinois federal judge has allowed more than 4,800 women to pursue $410 million in sex-discrimination claims against Rent-A-Center Inc., the nation's biggest rent-to-own furnishings chain.

According to a Washington Post report, US District Judge David R. Herndon of the Southern District Illinois used startling quotes he said were from more than 300 officials and employees supporting his decision to grant the plantiffs class-action status.

Government officials have labeled the Rent-A-Center charges one of the most blatant and widespread instances of discrimination against women in decades, alleging that company executives declined to hire women, refused to promote them, and sought them out for firing.

According to the Post, the quotes cited in Herndon’s ruling included:

  • “Women should be home taking care of their husbands and children, chained to a stove, not working in my stores.”
  • “In case you didn’t notice, we do not employ women.”
  • “I regularly throw away women’s applications.”
  • “The day I hire a woman will be a cold day in hell.”
  • “You can do the vacuuming because that’s a woman’s job.”
  • “You were fired because you are a woman.”

Herndon said the officials and employees echoed official company policy as laid down by Chairman and CEO J. Ernest Talley in Rent-A-Center’s anti-female policy: “A woman’s place is not in my stores.”

EEOC Steps In

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, investigated the case and got involved in the lawsuit on behalf of the women.

“It sounds like things I heard growing up in the 1950s,” said Donna Harper, supervisory trial attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis office, where the original claims in the case were filed and investigated. “I’ve never seen a case in which so many women and men tell the same kind of stories all across the country. It’s remarkable.”

Also, earlier in December, EEOC officials formally opposed a tentative $12.2 million settlement in papers filed with a federal appeals court in Kansas City, citing concerns that the plaintiffs in that action could fairly and accurately represent the claims of the women involved in other litigation against Rent-A-Center (See EEOC Opposes Sex Discrimination Settlement ). 

Jeff Lloyd, a spokesman for Rent-A-Center, said the company officials “vigorously denied the plaintiffs’ allegations that were recited by the judge in the recent ruling.”

“There has been no finding by the court that these allegations are true,” he said.

Last month, the company announced that it would adopt a comprehensive, nationwide policy against sex discrimination, institute company-wide training on discrimination, post job openings for review by all employees, eliminate weightlifting qualifications for job applicants, improve personnel record-keeping and modify procedures for reporting sex-discrimination complaints.

Rent-A-Center, based in Plano, Tex., has about 2,200 stores. The stores rent furniture, computers and appliances to customers, who sign contracts to purchase the goods over time.

– Fred Schneyer      editors@plansponsor.com