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Verizon Communications Inc. will credit thousands of current and former female employees who took pregnancy or maternity leave, entitling them to millions of dollars in pension benefits, under a consent decree approved Thursday by a New York federal judge. Up to 12,500 women in New York, 12 other states and the District of Columbia who worked for the New York-based company will receive service credit for time off from work to have or raise a baby, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whose New York district office brought the lawsuit. “We hope this settlement sends a message to employers that women cannot be penalized for leaves of absence related to pregnancy and child care,” EEOC New York Regional Attorney Katherine E. Bissell said in a statement. The consent decree, approved Thursday by Southern District of New York Judge Denny Chin, resolves lawsuits brought by the EEOC in 1997 and 1999 against Bell Atlantic and NYNEX (now Verizon). The agency, which has estimated that employees could receive benefits worth more than $10 million, said it is one of the largest settlements ever on the issue. From 1965 to 1979, the company did not give service credit to female employees on pregnancy or maternity leave, in contrast to men on disability or in military service, who were given full credit. Service credit is used to determine when employees are eligible for their pension and how much they will get. Under the consent decree, which formalizes a settlement reached earlier this year, women will get two to seven weeks of additional service credit per pregnancy. Some employees who missed out on early retirement may get up to 12 weeks of credit. Verizon maintains that its policies complied with the law at the time, according to company spokeswoman Sharon Cohen-Hagan. The company settled the case, she said, because it did not want to drag out the litigation any further. She added that the company considered the amount of the settlement non-material. The company began changing its policy in 1978, when Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, making it illegal to fire, demote or refuse to hire women because they are pregnant. Under the law, expectant and new mothers in the work force are also entitled to the same benefits given to temporarily disabled employees. It does appear that Verizon’s policies toward working mothers have come a long way since the late 1970s. Last month, Working Mother magazine named subsidiary Verizon Wireless one of the 100 best companies for working mothers for its positive work environment for women, which includes a “$10 Baby” program in which expectant mothers pay only an initial $10 co-pay for prenatal care and delivery expenses. The EEOC’s case against the company mirrors another case it settled in 1991. In that suit, the agency charged Western Electric Co. (now AT&T Corp.) with forcing pregnant female employees to leave their jobs sooner than they wanted, and refusing to credit women with accrued seniority while they were on pregnancy leave. The case, which was filed in 1978 on behalf of some 13,000 women who worked for Western Electric from 1965 to 1977, settled for a record $66 million.

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