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The United States left the Panama Canal Zone without paying its employees more than $1 billion in severance pay, social security and other benefits, the workers’ union charged in a lawsuit Thursday. The U.S. government, which ceded control of the canal to Panama in 1999, “has not given any legitimate explanation as to why [the workers] were treated the way they were,” said Steven Marks, the union’s attorney. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Miami seeks more than $1.2 billion in compensatory and punitive damages for 30,000 Panamanian civilians employed by canal administrators, the U.S. military and other U.S. agencies since the 1970s. More than 20,000 workers have signed documents to be part of the lawsuit, Marks said. The union charges U.S. citizens were treated differently from Panamanian citizens before and during the turnover, and that attempts in the past year to settle the dispute were fruitless. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said it would be inappropriate to comment on the lawsuit because no one with the government had seen it yet. Marks estimated Panamanian employees are owed close to $1 billion in severance pay under a U.S. law mandating payments when a major employer shuts down operations. He said some workers were offered and accepted severance packages but were never paid. “There are people who have lost their houses and couldn’t keep up with their payments because of this,” said Aurelio Grimes, a heavy equipment mechanic employed by the canal authority before and after the turnover. Multiple unions represented workers before the turnover but now are under the umbrella Association of Employees of the Panama Canal Area. “They were afraid to do anything formally until it became clear that a turnover was going to occur,” Marks said. “There is no longer a fear that there could be any retaliation.” The United States employed 30,000 Panamanians to operate, maintain and defend the canal. Military bases have been abandoned, and about 9,000 workers now run the canal. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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