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Amazon Retaliates against Women Demanding Fair Pay

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Female researchers allege systemic sex discrimination

Seattle, WAIn Wilmuth v. Amazon, three professional research team leaders filed a proposed class and collective lawsuit against, Inc. for its established practice of paying women less than men for similar work. It’s the usual gross, dreary, demeaning stuff that women deal with at work. But the Amazon researchers also claim that the company retaliated against them for raising the issue of gender pay discrimination. The retaliation they describe may amount to a form of wrongful termination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This is where things get interesting.

Title VII specifies that retaliation, so egregious that it makes it impossible for a normally competent and diligent employee to perform in a job, may amount to “constructive discharge” prohibited by civil rights law. The plaintiffs have announced their intention to add civil rights charges to their Complaint when the administrative process currently pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is complete.

Misclassification and the gender pay gap

Like many employers, Amazon maintains a stratified compensation-setting scheme of “job levels,” running from Level 4 (at the bottom) to Level 12 (at the top).  Within each job level, there are many “job codes.” Amazon assigns a level and code to each employee upon hire. The combination of level and code determines an employee’s base salary and the potential for promotion, bonuses and stock awards.

The Complaint alleges that Amazon regularly:
  • assigns women to lower job codes for the same job functions as comparable male employees;
  •  fails to advance women to higher job codes, resulting in the performance of similar work as men in higher job codes for less compensation; and
  • pays women lower salaries and/or stock awards than men in the same job code, even when they perform similar work.
By way of example, Caroline Wilmuth joined Amazon’s Worldwide Communications Organization in October 2017 as a General Marketing Manager on the Global Employer Brand team. In May 2019, she created a research function, which rapidly grew into a 14-member research team. In recognition of her high-quality work and immense impact on Amazon’s worldwide communications, she won a “One WWC” All-Star award in March 2022.

Nonetheless, Ms. Wilmuth continued to be classified as a General Marketing Manager, even though she focused exclusively on global research. She was the only person with a PhD and the only person on the team not classified as a higher-paid researcher. Between 2019 and December 2022, Amazon paid Ms. Wilmuth less than her male peers and multiple male direct reports. The difference allegedly amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another plaintiff, Erin Combs, had 20 years of experience in brand marketing, reputational strategy, and corporate social responsibility roles when she joined Amazon in March 2020, where she led marketing and communications. She later joined Ms. Wilmuth’s team as a brand and marketing strategist in a leadership role. Amazon allegedly paid Ms. Combs at the very low end of the pay band for her role, less than men in the same job code with substantially less experience.

Katherine Schomer first began raising concerns about pay inequity with Ms. Wilmuth within weeks of joining the research team in July 2022. This was after she discovered that a male team member was classified as a Research Scientist, while Ms. Schomer was not.

Harassment and retaliation

The Complaint describes the usual gendered mistreatment of all three of the women. It was the usual, commonly normalized unfair stuff – demeaning comments, male employees taking credit for the work of the women, etc. They were criticized for their “attitudes” and strident way of speaking.

Caroline Wilmuth seems to have borne the brunt of the harassment and retaliation. Shortly after she raised complaints about pay inequity to her supervisors, she was informed that her scheduled promotion and pay increase would be postponed.

Eventually, Amazon removed all three women from their leadership roles, stripped their direct reports from them, removed most of their remits and severely diminished their careers. They brought this lawsuit and seek class and collective action status because they believe that gender discrimination is endemic throughout Amazon.

State and federal remedies

Wilmuth seeks relief for the women under the:
  • Washington Law against Discrimination;
  • Washington Equal Pay and Opportunities Act;
  • federal Equal Pay Act; and
  • federal Family and Medical Leave Act;
In addition, they intend to amend their Complaint to seek remedies under Title VII.

Title VII and constructive discharge

As of the date the Complaint was filed, all three named plaintiffs were still employed at Amazon. Under certain statutes, that might prevent them from recovering damages or might limit the amount of their damages.

Title VII is unique, however, in that under the doctrine of “constructive discharge,” it recognizes that employees may be harassed out of their jobs. Harassment that is so severe that an employee is left with little other choice than to quit is also a form of wrongful termination. Wilmuth is a lawsuit to watch.


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