WASHINGTON -- The federal government has agreed to pay $508 million to 1,100 women to settle the largest federal sex discrimination case since the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964.
The agreement reached Wednesday, which still requires approval from a federal judge, would settle a 23-year-old complaint by women who said they were denied jobs with the U.S. Information Agency and its broadcast arm, the Voice of America, because of their gender.
The now-defunct agency, which was absorbed by the State Department in October, was responsible for disseminating U.S. government news and information overseas.
''The message has to be sent to the United States government, to employers in this country and to employers around the world: The cost of discrimination is high. If you compound that with delay, the cost of discrimination is enormous,'' said Bruce Fredrickson, the women's lead attorney.
In addition to the $508 million that must be paid to the women -- approximately $450,000 apiece before taxes -- the government must give them nearly $23 million in back pay and interest and pay their attorneys' fees. Those fees will be at least $12 million, because the lawyers intend to bill the government for approximately 90,000 hours of work over the 23 years.
The Justice Department said this was the largest sex discrimination case, although there have been larger settlements for other forms of discrimination.
Government lawyers decided to settle to save money, after many years of insisting on trying each individual case in the courts, even though the suit had been certified as a class-action case.
They already had lost 46 of the 48 cases that had gone to trial, with each woman winning about $500,000. Those 46 will share in Wednesday's settlement.
''We took into account the prior court decisions of the trial and appellate courts ..., the results of the individual class members' hearings that had been conducted to date, as well as our independent projections of the likely results of the remaining hearings in the absence of a settlement,'' said Wilma A. Lewis, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
In 1984, the government was found guilty of sex discrimination in U.S. District Court in Washington. Since then, the government filed and lost two appeals and was denied a hearing by the Supreme Court.
The women applied for jobs as international radio broadcasters, radio broadcast or electronic technicians, writers and editors, and production specialists at the agency and the Voice of America between Oct. 8, 1974 and Nov. 16, 1984.
Many of the women denied jobs had been experienced broadcasters from national and international news outlets, qualified writers and reporters, or experienced technicians and producers for network television and radio.
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