ROME, Ga. (FNS) -- A class-action lawsuit filed here last week charges Ingles Markets with discriminating against female employees by denying them equal pay, promotions and management opportunities.
The suit was filed in federal court by four current and former employees of the chain, who allege that women are relegated to cashier, clerk, deli and bakery positions, and are seldom promoted to management.
In similar cases, the same firm that represents the four Ingles workers won an $81.5 million judgment against Publix Super Markets last year and a $29.5 million judgment against Albertson's in 1994.
"It appears like this is a commercial venture on the part of some attorneys," said Marshall Johnson, a financial analyst who follows Ingles for McDaniel Lewis & Co., Greensborough, N.C. "I can't understand why [the suit] would be instituted in the first place, except from an indication that Ingles would be bought off."
"This is a modern form of blackmail," he added. "I think the [plaintiffs] have been persuaded they can settle."
Executives at Ingles, the 200-store chain based in Black Mountain, N.C., refused to comment on the case.
Johnson, however, said he does not expect Ingles to be an easy mark.
"Bob Ingles is tougher than that," Johnson said. "They're not going to get an easy settlement out of him."
Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, the plaintiffs' attorneys, urged Ingles to settle the case quickly. "We hope we can get to a practical and positive settlement -- the sooner it is resolved, the less it will cost," attorney Barry Goldstein said.
"We think Ingles has a serious problem. We are willing to discuss it with them any time they so choose," he added. The plaintiffs seek back pay and damages for lost compensation and job benefits they would have received, along with other damages and policy changes.
A judge must still certify the class.
"Several thousand" of Ingles' approximately 12,000 employees could be potential members of the class, according to Goldstein.
"Just about every woman who worked in the retail stores was affected. The jobs women were assigned to and restricted to, tended to be lower paying jobs," he said.
The firm estimates that 50% of Ingles' employees are female. Some have filed complaints against the chain with the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the firm said. In addition, a visual survey of management pictures in 39 Ingles' stores showed that 100% of the manager, assistant manager and produce, meat and grocery manager positions were held by men, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.
"Traditionally female" positions -- deli and bakery manager -- were held by women, the lawyers said.
The firm has set up a toll-free number for Ingles' employees to report problems, whether they want to take part in the action or not.
The firm acknowledged it has identified the supermarket trade as a target for discrimination lawsuits because of hiring practices that span decades.
"We've certainly seen a pattern with supermarkets," Goldstein told SN. "Although they're not the only industry like this, supermarkets' pattern of employment was set when the American population was segregated by race and gender. They had jobs that were exclusively male and female. Almost everybody worked their way up from the bottom, so the people at the top naturally thought it was a good way of doing business and should continue."
Goldstein said the firm focuses on the supermarket industry, specifically large chains, because it is a "booming business."