Nearly 30 former General Mills employees sued the company in federal court on Tuesday, claiming they were victims of age discrimination in a wave of layoffs about 18 months ago.
It is the second age-discrimination lawsuit filed against the Golden Valley-based food giant, which in 2014 launched a multiyear corporate restructuring that will eliminate more than 3,400 positions around the world, including in Minnesota.
The more recent case, filed in U.S. District Court by 29 ex-General Mills workers, claims that employees age 40 and older were more than three times as likely to be terminated as those under 40.
The employees in the lawsuit range in age from 42 to 63, and include a marketing director, project manager, financial analyst and nutritional scientist.
Some of the laid-off workers applied for other positions in the company for which they were qualified but didn’t get the jobs, according to the suit. Others said their jobs were later filled by younger workers, whom they were asked to train.
General Mills spokeswoman Bridget Christenson underscored in an e-mailed statement that the claims are related to a restructuring that occurred more than a year ago.
“The company stands by its employment decisions and sees no merit to these claims,” she said.
General Mills is facing headwinds similar to other multinational food companies, including Kellogg Co., Heinz, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Younger consumers’ tastes are changing, and the packaged foods mainstays that long fueled General Mills’ growth are losing favor.
Recent job cuts have resulted in plant closings across the world and the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Under such names as “Project Compass” and “Project Century,” the restructuring efforts aim to make the company leaner and more agile by reducing layers of management and redundancies.
The workers who are suing the company lost their jobs between late 2014 and early 2015 under an initiative General Mills called “Project Catalyst.”
About 800 positions were axed, many of them white-collar jobs based in the Twin Cities area.
According to the complaint, workers in their 20s had a 2.6 percent chance of being laid off; those 60 and older had a 21.4 percent chance of getting sacked.
The previous lawsuit was related to a June 2012 layoff known as “Project Refuel.” It was filed in February 2015 and has expanded to include 38 people.
The arguments by workers laid off under the more recent Project Catalyst were similar to the original lawsuit: that the cuts predominantly affected older workers, while the company disproportionately retained younger employees.
“Both of them show — from the disclosures made by General Mills — a very, very strong correlation statistically between being older and being fired,” said Stephen Snyder, an attorney with Minneapolis-based Snyder & Brandt, which represents laid-off General Mills workers in both suits. “The statistical correlation is the strongest in this case than in any of the cases I’ve handled.”
Snyder said even if General Mills had an older workforce overall, “you would expect that people — regardless of age — to be measured on their merits, and termination would be age-blind.”
The fired workers also take issue with a release agreement General Mills required them to sign before they could receive severance pay.
Under the contract, workers agreed to waive their legal claims and to handle disputes individually through arbitration.
All but one of the workers named in the latest suit signed the agreement.
The severance agreement was a bone of contention in the earlier case as well. General Mills sought to dismiss the collective action case and force each worker into separate arbitration.
But the workers won a round in federal court in October after a federal judge ruled that the case should get heard in court, not arbitration. General Mills has appealed that ruling to the Eighth Circuit Court.