RIVIERA BEACH, Fla.-Picketers demonstrated Oct. 1 outside three Tire Kingdom Inc. outlets in southern Florida alleging the retailer does not offer women the same opportunities as men to secure jobs and earn promotions. In response, the Riviera Beach-based dealership has placed advertisements in local newspapers stating it has ``welcomed every qualified woman who has ever applied for employment in our stores, and will continue to do so.''
The demonstrations, partly organized by the North Miami chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW), attempted to call attention to the recent firing of a female assistant store manager. She had filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) earlier this year against the firm.
In addition, two sisters have filed discrimination claims in federal and state court. Tire Kingdom has filed its own lawsuit, claiming the protesters-who appeared at its stores in North Miami Beach and Kendall and its corporate headquarters in Riviera Beach-have defamed their name and interrupted business.
Linda Nelson, who filed one of the two discrimination suits, was hired by Tire Kingdom Nov. 29, 1991. Before joining the company, she owned The $99 Tire Store in Prattville, Ala.
She was promoted from a sales position to assistant manager at Tire Kingdom's North Miami Beach outlet July 23, 1992, according to Buzz Miller, vice president of human resources and customer service. In March 1994, she became a store manager.
After four months, however, Ms. Nelson was returned to her assistant manager position ``by her own request,'' Mr. Miller said.
Ms. Nelson, who has been in the tire industry since 1969, said she asked to be returned to her old position because she had been transferred to a smaller store that, ``in effect, was a $1,000 pay cut.''
She filed a complaint with the EEOC last February, alleging Tire Kingdom discriminates against its women employees.
In July, she asked the dealership to pay her $250,000-as compensation for the advancement opportunities she believes were unfairly given to less experienced employees she had trained-or risk a lawsuit. Her employment was terminated Aug. 26.
``This employee was fired after committing several serious violations of company policies, including deliberately falsifying company documents-including her own time records-and compromising store security,'' the company said in a press release.
``We put principle ahead of money,'' Mr. Miller added. ``Anyone would have been fired for those violations.''
Ms. Nelson said she didn't break store policies, but rather, the firm began ``looking for technicalities'' on which to fire her after she gave a deposition in support of her sister, Carol Click, who filed a similar discrimination suit against Tire Kingdom in 1994, shortly before quitting her job as a store manager.
Tire Kingdom said it currently employs more than 60 women, including seven corporate and three retail managers. However, it also noted 75 percent of its 1,500 employees are tire and service technicians.
``Few women enroll in the technical and vocational schools that are a prime source for qualified workers to fill these positions,'' the company said.
To counter the protests, Tire Kingdom took out full-page advertisements in local newspapers to print a 580-word ``open letter,'' signed by CEO Chuck Curcio, explaining the company's position and hiring practices.
``The employment of women in the automotive service business is an industry-wide situation. Statistically, the number of women employed in our industry is extremely small, and the applicant flow at Tire Kingdom is almost non-existent,'' the advertisement stated.
Still, the company insists it is trying to attract women to the tire and automotive service industry by actively recruiting and training women for related positions.
``It is important to note that 40 percent of our customers are women. It does not stand to reason that we would follow employment policies contrary to the interests of such a significant portion of our customer base,'' the company said.
But Julia Dawson, president of the North Miami NOW, said the problem with attracting women to apply for positions with Tire Kingdom is the way female employees are treated after they're hired.
Ms. Nelson said Tire Kingdom did not change its policies after she repeatedly asked that ``offensive'' tool company calendars be taken off the outlet's walls and that male tire technicians use the bathroom to change into and out of their work clothes. She said the techs would change at their locker area, which could be seen by other employees and customers.
Still, she told TIRE BUSINESS she is interested in returning to the tire industry.
Meanwhile, women's groups throughout Florida will be asked to mail ``informational flyers'' discussing Tire Kingdom's ``discrimination against women,'' Ms. Dawson said.