Health and Science

What?! Bank insured men's families, but not women's

Peter Dazeley | Getty Images

This bank's account with women is now balanced.

A New Jersey bank is cutting female workers a nice-sized check after refusing for years to offer health insurance to their families even though male employees got that benefit for their own families, according to a settlement document.

Union County Savings Bank agreed to pay $261,500 to settle claims that it violated federal civil rights laws by discriminating against the female workers, according to the bank's agreement with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which CNBC obtained from lawyers for the workers.

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Those workers include two female tellers who claimed they were retaliated against in 2013 in the form of lower-than-average raises after they discussed filing a complaint about how they and other women couldn't get health coverage for their families from the bank while their male colleagues did.

The settlement finalized Thursday will be split between the two tellers, Joanne DeVito and Joanne Kusterer, as well as by other female workers at Union County Savings Bank, according to the EEOC conciliation agreement. DeVito and Kusterer also will have their pay raised to the level it would have been if they had gotten the same level of raises received by their colleagues.

The small, four-office bank based in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which has about $1.6 billion in assets, and $1.4 billion in deposits, had for decades given male workers health insurance for themselves, spouses and children at no cost.

But female workers were only given such insurance for themselves, "and explicitly denied female employees the option of obtaining health insurance coverage for their spouses or families," according to the National Women's Law Center, which represented the two tellers. That meant women who worked at the bank, including DeVito and Kusterer, were subject to a larger financial burden from having to get such coverage elsewhere, in some cases, the NWLC noted.

Kusterer told CNBC, "We knew all along, for years, that this was not right." She said that there were about 10 male employees at the bank, all of whom were given family health coverage, while there were slightly less than 40 women who were denied the ability to get that coverage for their husbands or children.

In an October 2012 article in the Newark Star-Ledger, a former bank executive, Charles Morgan, told that newspaper that the benefit structure reflected the views of Union County Savings Bank's CEO Donald Sims that men are responsible for supporting their families.

Sims did not deny Morgan's claims that women and men were offered different health insurance options in terms of their family.

"I'm not denying it. I'm not saying anything," Sims told the paper at the time. "It is, as I say, not worthy of comment."

Kusterer told CNBC on Friday, that "sometimes Mr. Sims said, 'well, you have a husband,'" when the CEO was asked by employees about the disparate treatment at the bank.

"I think he thinks that since you have a husband, or you're a woman, you're not entitled to certain things," she said. "It's the general idea that men were the breadwinners of the family."

DeVito on Friday said that during a conversation one day about Sims, "My manager said, 'He's not discriminatory, he's just old-school.' "

In 2013, DeVito and Kusterer received raises that were 50 percent less than raises given other tellers at their branch on the heels of their discussing filing a complaint, they said.

Around the same time, Union County Savings Bank for the first time ever offered female employees the option of getting family health coverage, according to to the National Women's Law Center. But, the center noted, the bank for the first time required employees—of any gender—to pay a premium for that coverage, and also changed the insurance to a plan with less generous benefits.

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The tellers soon after, in late spring 2013, filed complaints with the EEOC. That agency then investigated, and within two months had found reasonable cause to believe the tellers' claims that the bank had violated federal civil rights.

The EEOC's findings then led to the settlement with the bank, which was signed Aug. 29 by Sims and signed off on by the women and the EEOC itself this week.

That agreement includes the requirement that Sims and the bank abide by federal employment law, and not retaliate against the tellers and other women at the bank. Sims, along with the head of human relations for the bank and branch managers, must also undergo two hours of training on the laws his bank was accused of violating.

The settlement will cover not only compensatory damages, but also out-of-pocket medical costs the women incurred, as well as back pay for the two tellers.

The settlement also noted that, "It is understood that this Agreement does not constitute an admission by any Respondent of any violation of any statute administered by the EEOC."

Sims was out of the office and not available to comment to CNBC, according to the bank when contacted Friday. A request for comment from another executive was not immediately returned.

Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women's Legal Center, praised the EEOC while criticizing the bank for its treatment of female workers.

"Health insurance is part of a pay package—what an employee earns by going to work each day," Martin said. "It is shameful that in this day and age an employer would shortchange its female employees simply because they are women. And it's even worse that Ms. DeVito and Ms. Kusterer took a further hit to their paychecks simply because they sought to challenge this blatant discrimination. We applaud the EEOC for its work in bringing about this settlement and helping to right these wrongs."

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DeVito said, "I'm grateful that my female coworkers will now be treated equally under the bank's policies."

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"I know firsthand the devastating financial and emotional toll that discrimination in the workplace creates for workers and their families," DeVito said.

Kusterer said her family paid "a steep price for" the discrimination and retaliation by the bank.

"I hope this positive example will inspire other women to stand up and challenge discrimination on the job," Kusterer said.

An EEOC spokeswoman had no comment on the settlement, saying that agency rules prohibited any discussion of a complaint or settlement, short of a lawsuit filed by the agency. The spokeswoman did say parties in a complaint can disclose such information.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan