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When five African-American women were laid off from their jobs at a community-based health program in 1994, they were given no notice and were closely monitored by management as they packed their belongings. On the day they lost their jobs, each of them said they felt humiliated and embarrassed, and as one woman put it, felt the treatment was based on the presumption “that black women steal things.” Other co-workers who were also laid off around the same time had been given notice and were not watched by their employers as they packed to leave. The women filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in August 1994 under an “unusual theory” of the state’s anti-discrimination law, according to Boston lawyer Marc L. Breakstone, who represented Gloria Coney, one of the five women. Instead of filing a complaint that they lost their jobs based on race, the women based their complaint on the manner in which they were laid off, Breakstone said. ‘EXTREMELY HUMILIATING’ “This was extremely humiliating and denigrating to these women,” Breakstone said. “Gloria (Coney) is a very experienced, professional woman with a master’s degree who was treated like a common criminal.” Officials with the social services program had said they monitored the employees because of general concerns about “vandalism, sabotage, and personal safety of employees as well as a specific desire to ensure the integrity of the program’s confidential files,” according to the MCAD decision issued Monday. Following five days of testimony in May 1998, MCAD Commissioner Douglas T. Schwarz found that Health & Hospitals of the City of Boston had discriminated against the women because of race and gender by treating them differently from the other non-African-American employees who were laid off at the same time in July 1994. One white male employee, for example, was allowed to pick the day he would be laid off and was allowed to say good-bye to his co-workers, according to the decision. The employer, without notice, discharged the women, told them to gather their belongings and leave the building that day, while closely and aggressively monitoring them as they packed their personal items, according to the decision. MONEY DAMAGES In the decision, Coney v. Trustees of Health & Hospitals of the City of Boston, Schwarz awarded each of the women money in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 for emotional distress. Besides Ms. Coney, Belinda Chambers, Veronica Higginbottom, Marlene Hinds and Betty Smith, all resided in the Boston area at the time of the layoff. Eileen A. Roach, a Boston attorney representing Trustees of Health & Hospitals, said she plans to file an appeal to the full MCAD commission. She declined to comment on Schwarz’s decision because the matter is pending. Under Massachusetts law, it is unlawful for an employer to subject employees to different “terms, conditions and privileges of employment” based on the employee’s race or gender (G.L. c. 151B, Sect. 4, par. 1), according to Schwarz’s finding. Hospital officials testified at the May 1998 MCAD hearing that they had expected all the employees laid off because of budget concerns would be given the same notice and would be monitored as they left. NOT THE REAL REASON Schwarz concluded the employer’s proffered reasons for its disparate treatment of complainants were not its real reasons and that the women were “victims of unlawful discrimination.” Within two weeks of the layoffs, Boston Public Health Commissioner Lawrence Dwyer appeared at a union meeting of the program’s employees and apologized. “In apologizing, Dwyer stated that the treatment the complainants received — being guarded and ushered out without notice — would not be repeated during his tenure,” according to the MCAD decision. A few months later, the hospital’s layoff procedure was changed through collective bargaining as a result of the 1994 layoffs.

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