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Women file age discrimination complaint against Metro, sample company


Geoff Robins/for the Toronto Star From left , Mitch Williams, Ann Taggart, Marion Beaudoin, Ruth Wanlin, Judy McGann and Lone Thompson stand outside Cherry Hill Mall in London, Ont.

Seven older women have filed a human rights complaint against Metro stores and the country’s largest product demonstration company, alleging they were let go from their jobs handing out samples to make way for youngersoccer moms.”

It’s one of the biggest claims of alleged age discrimination filed to date with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

The women, who live in London and range in age from 62 to 78, depended on their part-time jobs as “brand ambassadors” with product sampling giant InStore Focus to make ends meet.

They are seeking $ 25,000 each in damages for “insult to dignity” and a combined $ 38,000 in lost wages.

Between last summer and fall the women found their usual 14 to 28 hours per week cut to zero. At the same time, InStore was advertising that it was looking for 12 new brand ambassadors.

The replacements are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, say the older women, who made between $ 10.25 and $ 11.50 per hour.

InStore has never told the women they were fired, as such. But at least two were told by an veteran InStore Focus supervisor that they no longer fit the “profile” and that Metro was looking for “soccer moms” — younger women with kids.

“To go from making $ 600 a month to nothing . . . it was a big shock,” says Martha Williams, 63, who goes by the nickname Mitch. “All the area manager kept saying was, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s out of my hands.”

That manager died of cancer in May. But in emails to former brand ambassadors like Lone Thompson, 65, filed as part of the legal case, that manager makes it clear there’s been a change of direction: The only thing unclear, and key to the case, is did Metro or InStore instigate the staff changes.

“Basically the mandate for Metro is their ‘target market’ so if the client is targeting a cereal for instance for children, they want someone who represents the ‘mom’ who does most of the shopping for those kids,” says the InStore manager in an email.

Metro didn’t return calls from the Star and InStore declined to comment: “We are not aware of any claim … the Company does not infringe on rights, or violate the Ontario Human Rights Code,” said Sonya Crisp, manager of human resources for InStore Focus Inc. in an email.

Peter Cameron, former manager of the London Metro where both Thompson and Williams worked for years, said he had no idea what happened: “One day they were there, the next they were gone.”

Ageism claims are still relatively rare in Ontario — they make up less than three per cent of all complaints to the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, which is representing the women in this case.

People can believe that their age has something to do with (the loss of a job), but it can be hard to get the evidence. Here it’s very clear,” says senior legal counsel Beth Walden who is representing the women.

“This case highlights how vulnerable older workers are and older women in particular.”

Lone Thompson, 64, worked for InStore 15 years.

“I loved my job. I was always on the Internet researching products so I could give (customers) good, solid information. When (the manager) said they want soccer moms I thought, what difference does that make? It’s not like we all stop shopping at a certain age?”

Friends warned Thompson she would be mocked if she launched a complaint.

“But if nothing else, it should open the eyes of employers. We all did a good job and we did it with conviction and all of a sudden, because we hit a certain age, that’s it. . . . We don’t need you anymore.

Well, I think that’s wrong.”

Laura Tucker, 78, has had to take in foreign exchange students since the fall to top up her old age pension to make up for the unexpected loss of her InStore income.

Virtually none of the women have company pensions because they grew up in an era when men worked and women stayed home to raise the children.

“I loved that job. I loved my people,” she says of regular customers who still stop her on the street to say they feared she had died.

“I was in the store a few weeks ago and saw one of the girls (her replacements) handing out dark chocolate. I asked her: ‘How many calories is this?’

“She said: ‘I don’t know.’ So I told her to look it up. That’s the first thing people are going to want to know.”

thestar.com – Business

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