PALM HARBOR — Four veteran employees say the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club fired them because they were too old.
The oldest, Elisabeth Conrath, a concierge who was 89 when she was let go, claimed she was replaced by a man in his 30s.
The others said younger workers filled their jobs, too, according to the suit filed in Pinellas against resort owner Salamander Innisbrook LLC on Jan. 28.
"It was my life," said Gilda Bartunek, 76, a former concierge, who worked for Innisbrook for 24 years.
Together, the employees served the resort for 94 years.
"You can't wipe the floor with people after 100 years," said Bartunek of Belleair, who says she was replaced by a 28-year-old woman. "They didn't even give me a handshake."
Employment decisions were based on the economy and efforts to improve the resort, not age, said the resort's attorney, Mark Levitt.
"We have carefully looked into (the allegations) in the past," said Levitt of Allen, Norton & Blue, a Florida firm that specializes in labor and employment law. "We don't think there is any merit to the case."
Levitt said the resort plans to "vigorously defend" the case.
The workers' ages and their years of service dispute the age discrimination claims, he said. For example, Conrath, now 90, worked for Innisbrook 31 years.
The suit alleges that employees were fired after owner Sheila Johnson took over Innisbrook in July 2007 and after a new food and beverage director was hired.
Johnson, a billionaire and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, purchased the 900-acre resort through her company. The firings reportedly took place between October 2007 and March 2008.
The workers also filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations in June 2008.
No findings were made in those cases and his clients requested the right to sue, according to the workers' attorney, Wil Florin, a Palm Harbor trial lawyer.
A "substantial number" of employees were removed after the new management took over, Florin said. His clients will have a better idea of how many older workers were dismissed as the case progresses, he said.
The resort declined comment about specific numbers of employees terminated or their ages.
Others involved in the suit are Michael LeFave, now 49, of New Port Richey, who worked as an executive sous chef/banquet chef, and Peter Cipolla, 61, of Dunedin, a former executive chef.
Cipolla's EEOC and Human Relations Commission complaints said he was told "the company is going in another direction" when he was fired in January 2008.
In her complaint, Conrath, now 90, who was fired in October 2007, claimed she was told the resort was doing away with the concierge position.
Bartenuk claimed she was placed "on call" but terminated from the resort computer system and never called.
The employees are seeking back pay and benefits, compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering and other damages.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.