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Female workers tell of Jared jewelry pay gap

Filling in again as a Jared Galleria of Jewelry store manager in Brandon, Dawn Souto-Coons' long-suspected fears were confirmed when she stumbled into a payroll report on an office desk.

"Sure enough, every male except one earned more — $2, $3 and up to $4 an hour more — than any of the females," said the 13-year jewelry store veteran. "Even the top female sales associate, who sold more than $1-million of jewelry a year, got $2.50 less an hour than a guy just hired with no jewelry experience."

Souto-Coons is part of the Tampa Bay connection to a suit filed this week by the U.S. Employment and Equal Opportunity Commission alleging systemic sex discrimination in pay and promotion across 1,414 jewelry stores run by Sterling Jewelers Inc. of Akron, Ohio.

Souto-Coons, 49, had managed one of the parent company's JBRobinson stores in Maryland. But since relocating to Tampa with her husband's government job seven year ago, she took a $20,000 pay cut, then was passed over for store manager openings twice, and trained men with no jewelry background for manager jobs she was denied. At the time of her payroll discovery, she was pinch hitting for a male boss off being trained for a promotion to district manager. She didn't get the job he vacated, either.

A unit of British-owned Signet Group, the world's largest specialty jeweler, Sterling owns Jared, Kay Jewelers and Marks & Morgan locally and employed 20,000 women in the period covered by the suit dating back to Jan. 1, 2003.

Nineteen named plaintiffs in eight states — and hundreds more in statements collected in 20 states — claim similar experiences to Souto-Coons', including eight from the Tampa Bay area. Filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, N.Y., the civil case seeks unspecified money damages and a court order in which Sterling agrees to clean up its act and independent monitoring.

The EEOC case grew from what was found in discrimination complaints in Tampa where female workers are in arbitration with Sterling.

"From cases like Tampa, we verified systemic pay and promotion discrimination across the entire company," said Margaret Malloy, EEOC senior trial attorney in New York.

Because Sterling gives local managers wide discretion, "pay and promotion have been excessively subjective," the EEOC said.

"It's amazing a company that gets most of its business from women treats female employees like this," said Sam Smith, a Tampa lawyer with Burr & Smith, which filed the case.

Sterling denies discrimination, noting most store managers nationally are women. Sterling said Souto-Coons didn't get promoted because of declining job performance.

"We take the allegations very seriously," said spokesman David Bouffard. "We are confident these charges do not reflect the culture of this company."

Other Jared workers, however, say local managers hire and promote friends, who are more often male. They also ignored sexual harassment complaints and tolerated boorish behavior — including an alleged sexual assault of a 25-year-old employee by a 40-year-old supervisor — at store management conferences staged annually at Walt Disney World.

"It's the good ol' boy network," said Judy Reed, 56, who stepped down from assistant store manager to a sales job at Jared in Citrus Park last year. This after being passed over a third time for manager jobs she didn't know were open until they were filled.

"There is no system to inform you of openings, so I never had a chance to interview."

Sherry Roberson, who worked as a Jared assistant store manager in Illinois and Tampa, said her experience was similar to Souto-Coons'.

"I was assured on my first promotion to assistant store manger that the $35,000 a year they offered me was the company standard," she said. "Then I met a man with no retail experience who got the same job at $37,000."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Female workers tell of Jared jewelry pay gap 09/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 1:56pm]
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