Norwegian consulate sued over claim of unequal pay

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 29, 2012 - 10:06 PM

A former female worker says a man was paid more in a similar job.

Ordinarily, the annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum, being held this weekend at Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, would mark a happy occasion for Ellen Ewald, an adviser to the event who has served on its executive committee.

But this year, it underscores a bitter employment dispute that Ewald has going with Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize and a nation she said is known for promoting equal treatment of women and other human rights.

Ewald filed suit in Hennepin County District Court against the Royal Norwegian Embassy and its honorary consul general in Minneapolis last summer after they refused to address her complaints that she was paid substantially less money and provided fewer benefits than a male counterpart. The defendants quickly moved it to federal court in St. Paul.

Ewald, a Twin Cities native and U graduate, had lived in Norway for more than 20 years before returning to Minneapolis in October 2008 to take a job with her adopted nation's consulate as director of higher education and research. She's fluent in Norwegian and has master's degrees from the University of Bergen in Norway and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ewald's job was to help promote scientific brain research in the Midwest using Norway's rich "biobank," a kind of warehouse of biological data gathered through that nation's health-care system.

"This is really a gold mine for research," Ewald said in an interview this week. "It was my dream job."

'Parallel jobs'

According to her lawsuit, the Norwegian Embassy posted two "parallel" jobs in July 2008 that would work in concert. One was the position Ewald accepted. The other was innovation and business development officer. Ewald said each job had similar requirements and both offered salaries capped at $70,000.

Ewald said she was surprised to learn shortly after she began work that she was denied medical insurance coverage for family, because she knew that it was covered for her counterpart, Anders Davidson.

Ewald said she learned in March 2009 that Davidson was being paid $110,000 to her $70,000. She complained internally for months, and a woman at the embassy in Washington told her she should just accept it. "'The world is not fair,'" she said.

Ewald said that Gary Gandrud,, the honorary consul general and a partner in the Faegre and Benson law firm at the time, took her to lunch and to discuss her complaints. She said he noted that the presidents of small private colleges wouldn't get paid the same as the president of Target Corp., so she shouldn't expect to make the same salary in an educational position that Davidson made as the business liaison.

In her lawsuit, Ewald says that Gandrud urged her to notify Norway's ambassador that the situation was resolved, or someone "would likely have to go."

Ewald said she insisted that she still deserves equal pay for equal work.

"Then he got angry," she said. "He slammed his fist on the table."

Ewald's contract with the consulate expired in September and was not renewed.

Embassy: No comment on suit

Gandrud declined to comment. He referred a reporter to Dan Wilzcek, a lawyer at his former firm, now called Faegre Baker Daniels who represents the embassy. Wilzeck said the embassy declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but will file an answer in due course.

Ewald said she was inspired to sue the embassy and Gandrud after she heard Iranian human rights activist and attorney Shirin Abadi, the 2003 Peace Prize winner, speak last March at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson dismissed Gandrud from the case in late January, finding that he had diplomatic immunity for his official actions.

Ewald now works for Tysvar, a privately held consulting firm focused on emerging business opportunities in the green economy and health care. She also serves on the Peace Initiative Committee for Norway House, and was recently elected to its board. And she's involved with the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, which was started by former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.

"I'm determined to bring this out in the open because Norway is this country that has so much to be proud of, they need to stand up for these values," Ewald said. "I have two children, young women. It's about setting an example."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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