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Ford Motor Co. halted an apprenticeship training program at its manufacturing plants nationwide after the nation’s second biggest automaker was accused of discriminating against black employees in choosing who entered the program, a company spokesman says. The automaker says it did nothing wrong, but has agreed with its accusers to a previously-disclosed settlement that awaits approval by federal judges. Lawyers handling the litigation have asked the federal courts to approve the settlement as covering approximately 3,400 black employees of Ford plants around the country who took a test for the program on or after Jan. 1, 1997, and were not chosen to participate. If the deal is approved as is, Ford would make payments to the eligible participants, set aside 279 positions in the apprenticeship training program for blacks and pay the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ fees. The company operates 36 U.S. plants. The settlement could cost Ford more than $10 million, including payments of $2,400 apiece to current or former employees allegedly harmed by the apprenticeship selection procedure and $30,000 to the originally named plaintiffs. The higher payment is intended to compensate them for their assistance in the case and for release of their individual claims. Lawyers for the Ford workers said the selection program discriminated against black applicants, in violation of state and federal civil rights laws. Ford denied that the program was discriminatory, but shut it down. “Based on some of the issues that had been raised, we stopped the training program in August,” Ford spokesman Glenn Ray said Tuesday. “They stepped up to the plate to fix the problem,” said Cyrus Mehri, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing the Ford workers said of the company. “We’re delighted to be working with them in terms of a creative solution.” Under the proposed settlement, a new selection program designed to treat minority applicants more fairly would be put in place and monitored by an industrial psychologist with expertise in workplace and personnel issues. The apprenticeship program allows unskilled laborers in Ford plants to learn skills for higher paying jobs including electricians and millwrights. That can result in higher earnings, better job security and improved opportunities for promotion, lawyers representing the plaintiffs said. The United Auto Workers union, which represents Ford workers, was named as a defendant in the litigation because the union has an interest in the selection process for the program. Telephone messages requesting comment were left Tuesday with Roger Kerson, a UAW spokesman in Detroit. The allegations are contained in separate lawsuits filed last week in Cincinnati federal court, one by 11 current and former Ford employees and the other by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated the claims and helped mediate the proposed settlement. The employees worked at Ford plants in Sharonville and Batavia, near Cincinnati. The current and former Ford employees filed complaints with the EEOC in 1998. The negotiations to reach the settlement lasted more than a year, according to the filings in court. The settlement proposals are identical in both cases and the two federal judges handling the cases could ultimately decide to combine them, lawyers in the cases said Tuesday. The EEOC case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott and the plaintiffs’ lawsuit to Judge S. Arthur Spiegel. No hearings have been set. Under the proposed settlement, Ford also would pay $1.1 million to cover all court costs and attorneys’ fees in the case up to the date of final approval of the settlement, according to court documents. One year after that approval, Ford would pay the lawyers for the Ford workers $567,000 for implementing and monitoring the agreement. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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