Grass Seed Company Resolves Investigation Into Unlawful Severance Agreements Offered to Employees During Recent Reduction in Force
MINNEAPOLIS - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Oregon-headquartered grass seed company Barenbrug USA have reached a voluntary conciliation agreement to resolve allegations of discrimination raised by a former employee, the federal agency said today.
Following an investigation, the EEOC determined that it was probable that Barenbrug, which has employees across the country, violated several federal statutes by conditioning employees' receipt of severance pay on an overly broad severance agreement that interfered with employees' rights to file charges and voluntarily cooperate with the EEOC. The agency said the company also violated federal law by failing to provide legally required disclosures to employees subjected to a reduction in force.
The EEOC said that through these practices, Barenbrug violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Barenbrug denied that the severance agreement was problematic or that any violation of law occurred.
After the EEOC issued its determination, Barenbrug and the EEOC entered into a conciliation agreement with the EEOC. As part of that agreement, the company agreed to revise its separation agreements going forward. Barenbrug also agreed to revise past agreements and notify signatories who signed prior versions that they could file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Additionally, the company will provide a monetary settlement to the individual who filed the discrimination charge leading to this agreement and will provide training to company officials regarding non-waivable employee rights. The EEOC will monitor compliance with this agreement for the next three years.
"We appreciate Barenbrug's willingness to proactively tackle this issue once it was brought to its attention," said Julianne Bowman, district director of the Chicago District Office. "Increasingly, we are seeing employers including overbroad language in their separation agreements that interfere with employees' rights to participate in EEOC processes, such as filing a discrimination charge, or that impedes the EEOC's ability to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws as it deems necessary."
Nick Pladson, acting director for the Minneapolis Area Office, added, "We hope that other employers take notice of Barenbrug's quick response to the findings of our investigation and pay closer attention to the language in their separation agreements, particularly when they are considering business restructuring that result in layoffs or other reductions in force. Whether intentional or not, employers cannot insist on terms that are misleading, confusing or void against public policy."
James Schneider, President of Barenbrug USA, stated "Barenbrug is committed to providing equal employment opportunities and to comply with all applicable equal employment opportunity laws and regulations. Although we disagree that there was any violation of law in this instance, we are happy to work collaboratively with the EEOC to bring this matter to a close and on being the best company to work for within the grass seed industry."
Guidance for individuals and employers regarding the EEOC's position on non-waivable employee rights under EEOC-enforced statutes is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/waiver.html
Preserving access to the legal system, including addressing overbroad separation agreements, is one of the EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan priorities. For more information about the EEOC's priorities for 2017 - 2021, visit https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/plan/sep-2017.cfm. Individuals who believe they may be have been subjected to discrimination or retaliation may initiate the charge filing process online via this link https://publicportal.eeoc.gov/portal/ or select the "File a Charge" button on www.eeoc.gov.
The EEOC's Minneapolis Area Office is part of the agency's Chicago District Office, which is responsible for investigating charges of employment discrimination, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov. Stay connected with the latest EEOC news by subscribing to our email updates.