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Ex-IBM Executive Says She Was Told Not to Disclose Names of Employees Over Age 50 Who’d Been Laid Off

In an affidavit filed as part of a class-action lawsuit, a former IBM vice president says she was fired for warning superiors that the company was vulnerable to claims of age bias. IBM says it was because of “gross misconduct.”

The IBM Headquarters building. (James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

In sworn testimony filed recently as part of a class-action lawsuit against IBM, a former executive says she was ordered not to comply with a federal agency’s request that the company disclose the names of employees over 50 who’d been laid off from her business unit.

Catherine A. Rodgers, a vice president who was then IBM’s senior executive in Nevada, cited the order among several practices she said prompted her to warn IBM superiors the company was leaving itself open to allegations of age discrimination. She claims she was fired in 2017 because of her warnings.

Company spokesman Edward Barbini labeled Rodgers’ claims related to potential age discrimination “false,” adding that the reasons for her firing were “wholly unrelated to her allegations.”

Rodgers’ affidavit was filed Jan. 17 as part of a lawsuit in federal district court in New York. The suit cites a March 2018 ProPublica story that IBM engaged in a strategy designed to, in the words of one internal company document, “correct seniority mix” by flouting or outflanking U.S. anti-age discrimination laws to force out tens of thousands of older workers in the five years through 2017 alone.

Rodgers said in an interview Sunday that IBM “appears to be engaged in a concerted and disproportionate targeting of older workers.” She said that if the company releases the ages of those laid off, something required by federal law and that IBM did until 2014, “the facts will speak for themselves.”

“IBM is a data company. Release the data,” she said.

Rodgers is not a plaintiff in the New York case but intends to become one, said Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney for the employees.

IBM has not yet responded to Rodgers’ affidavit in the class-action suit. But in a filing in a separate age-bias lawsuit in federal district court in Austin, Texas, where a laid-off IBM sales executive introduced the document to bolster his case, lawyers for the company termed the order for Rodgers not to disclose the layoffs of older workers from her business unit “unremarkable.”

They said that the U.S. Department of Labor sought the names of the workers so it could determine whether they qualified for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, which provides jobless benefits and re-training to those who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. They said that company executives concluded that only one of about 10 workers whose names Rodgers had sought to provide qualified.

In its reporting, ProPublica found that IBM has gone to considerable lengths to avoid reporting its layoff numbers by, among other things, limiting its involvement in government programs that might require disclosure. Although the company has laid off tens of thousands of U.S. workers in recent years and shipped many jobs overseas, it sought and won TAA aid for just three during the past decade, government records show.

Company lawyers in the Texas case said that Rodgers, 62 at the time of her firing and a 39-year veteran of IBM, was let go in July 2017 because of “gross misconduct.”

Rodgers said that she received “excellent” job performance reviews for decades before questioning IBM’s practices toward older workers. She rejected the misconduct charge as unfounded.

Legal action against IBM over its treatment of older workers appears to be growing. In addition to the suits in New York and Texas, cases are also underway in California, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Liss-Riordan, who has represented workers against a series of tech giants including Amazon, Google and Uber, has added 41 plaintiffs to the original three in the New York case and is asking the judge to require that IBM notify all U.S. workers whom it has laid off since July 2017 of the suit and of their option to challenge the company.

One complicating factor is that IBM requires departing employees who want to receive severance pay to sign a document waiving their right to take the company to court and limiting them to private, individual arbitration. Studies show this process rarely results in decisions that favor workers. To date, neither plaintiffs’ lawyers nor the government has challenged the legality of IBM’s waiver document.

Many ex-employees also don’t act within the 300-day federal statute of limitations for bringing a case. Of about 500 ex-employees who Liss-Riordan said contacted her since she filed the New York case last September, only 100 had timely claims and, of these, only about 40 had not signed the waivers and so were eligible to join the lawsuit. She said she’s filed arbitration cases for the other 60.

At key points, Rodgers’ account of IBM’s practices is similar to those reported by ProPublica. Among the parallels:

  • Rodgers said that all layoffs in her business unit were of older workers and that younger workers were unaffected. (ProPublica estimated that about 60 percent of the company’s U.S. layoffs from 2014 through 2017 were workers age 40 and above.)

  • She said that she and other managers were told to encourage workers flagged for layoff to use IBM’s internal hiring system to find other jobs in the company even as upper management erected insurmountable barriers to their being hired for these jobs.

  • Rodgers said the company reversed a decades long practice of encouraging employees to work from home and ordered many to begin reporting to a few “hub” offices around the country, a change she said appeared designed to prompt people to quit. She said that in one case an employee agreed to relocate to Connecticut only to be told to relocate again to North Carolina.

Barbini, the IBM spokesman, didn’t comment on individual elements of Rodgers’ allegations. Last year, he did not address a 10-page summary of ProPublica’s findings, but issued a statement that read in part, “We are proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law.”

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