Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Hundreds of plaintiffs accused the parent company of Jared and Kay Jewelers of sexual harassment and discrimination, newly released documents say.
An arbitrator ruled in February that current and former female sales employees of Ohio-based Sterling Jewelers can unite in a class-action lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act. It came after a 2015 ruling allowing 69,000 female employees hired since 2004 to join a suit contending alleged discriminatory practices in hiring and promotions, the website of the Washington, D.C., law firm Cohen Milstein said.
Hundreds of documents in the decade-long case, including declarations from about 250 women who said they were routinely groped, demeaned and encouraged to cater to supervisors' sexual advances, were made public Sunday by the law firm and reported in The Washington Post.
The statements allege corporate officers used promises of promotions and higher pay to push female employees into sex; that employees reporting abuse were fired or verbally attacked; that a "boys' club" mentality pervaded the company; and that annual managers' meetings were "sex fests" in which attendance was mandatory and women were aggressively pursued.
Routine sexual preying at events was "done out in the open and appeared to be encouraged, or at least condoned, by the company," Melissa Corey, manager of several stores from 2002-08, said in her declaration.
Not all participants in the class-action suit alleged sexual discrimination. Some contend Sterling violated wage and promotion rules, that women were paid less than men and were passed over for promotions.
The litigants seek punitive damages and back pay, although no dollar estimate was given. A class hearing, in which witnesses can testify before an arbitration judge, is scheduled for early 2018.
Sterling spokesman David Bouffard said in a statement the company officials "thoroughly investigated the allegations and have concluded they are not substantiated by the facts and certainly do not reflect our culture." The statement added that sexual discrimination and harassment allegations "involve a very small number of individuals."
The case could diminish sales at Jared and Kay, companies whose advertising relies heavily on the romance of jewelry, The Washington Post said.
Signet Jewelry, the parent company of Sterling Jewelers, said in a 2016 report to shareholders it would be compelled to "pay substantial damages" if it lost the case.