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Aging suit by ex-Florida Power workers gets new life

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002

In the mighty halls of the U.S. Supreme Court today, Florida lawyers will argue a narrow but key slice of Wanda Adams et al vs. Florida Power Corp.

In the mighty halls of the U.S. Supreme Court today, Florida lawyers will argue a narrow but key slice of Wanda Adams et al vs. Florida Power Corp.

The local case now boasts national significance. Can older workers who lose their jobs use statistics to claim employer bias, just as civil rights cases involving minorities and women do now?

As our work force continues to age, that question grows more important.

In Citrus County, Wanda Adams -- whose name graces the 8-year-old lawsuit -- hopes the Supreme Court judges will see the light.

"I will pray all day that the Supreme Court knows what is right," she says.

So will 116 other former Florida Power workers, canned by the utility in the early 1990s, who are part of this aging age-discrimination lawsuit.

The ex-workers say 70 percent of the employees cut by Florida Power in the early '90s were over the age of 40.

Adams was one worker who thought she was set for life after a decade working as an operations training specialist at Florida Power's Crystal River nuclear plant.

Instead, she lost her job in a wave of heavy cutbacks.

Now in her 50s, she works as a clerk at the Inverness courthouse. The wages are modest compared to those at her old job, and she is not vested yet to receive retirement benefits. But she receives health insurance, which helps pay some of the high medical expenses for her husband's recent heart attack and diabetes.

"It's not been a walk in the park, these past eight years," she says.

Remarkably, Adams shows great restraint in her remarks about the power company that fired her. But she is definitely annoyed at a legal system that's dragged her case through countless hearings and appeals.

That, she says, does not bode well for Florida's aging work force.

"In a state made up of older residents who have to go out and work to supplement inadequate incomes," she asks, "what does it say about a case involving age that must take this long and go to the Supreme Court to be resolved?"

It should be a whole lot easier, Adams says.

"I want to see this over. I'd like a jury to hear me and 116 other people, to be allowed to go into a court room as one entity. That would be an opening statement in itself," she says.

In the early 1990s, St. Petersburg's Florida Power and its parent, Florida Progress Corp., worried about coming industry deregulation. Convinced they had to cut staff and prepare for competition, top executives Jack Critchfield and Dick Korpan began a series of heavy layoffs that lasted several years.

Critchfield soon retired, receiving $644,009 a year for the rest of his life. Though he worked for the company only 15 years, Critchfield was credited with 35 years of service, which sharply increased the size of his pension. When he dies, his younger wife, Mary, will receive $489,104 annually for the rest of her life.

Korpan then took over, promising workers that Florida Progress was lean, mean and ready to compete. Instead, the company was sold for $5.3-billion in 1999 to a North Carolina power company (now called Progress Energy) with a middle-of-the-road track record.

And Korpan? As part of the deal, he received $17.4-million in salary, bonus and severance pay in 2000. Now retired, he gets an $828,845 annual pension for the rest of his life.

Such lavish executive riches jar many of the struggling ex-workers of Florida Power.

"I know the money given to the CEOs alone would have kept each one of us employed with benefits from beginning to end," Adams says.

Does she have any message for Korpan? "God bless you," Adams offers without a pause.

At least, she adds, she has no trouble sleeping at night.

Thomas F. Hays, another one of the 117 in Wanda Adams et al, was canned on Dec. 8, 1995, from his job as a technical training instructor at Florida Power's Crystal River power complex. He remembers the day so well because it was his youngest daughter's 18th birthday.

Now 57, after some intermittent work at a Missouri power plant and as a technical writer for the Air Force, Hays is still looking for a job. He and his wife, Betty, have had no health insurance since he left Florida Power.

The couple, who live in Homosassa, live off Hays' savings. He was unable to help his own children with college expenses. And now that his kids are adults living nearby with their own babies, he can't afford the things he envisioned doing as a doting grandfather.

"My wife and I had been looking forward to retirement. All that went out the window and into the ditch. Now we are surviving -- that's what we call it," Hays says.

Eventually, Hays hopes to see at least some settlement money from Florida Power. But he's not holding his breath. From the start, Florida Power has insisted it will not cut a deal with the former workers, Hays says.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Adams and Hays and 115 others, it will set a broader standard for age discrimination cases. That means employees can make a legal claim using something called "disparate impact" to allege layoffs have a disproportionate effect on older workers, even if the company is not intentionally discriminating against them.

A ruling is expected by this summer.

Hays says he doesn't like to get riled over his Florida Power experience. But he can't help it when a reporter makes him recall the memories. And the crush of recent coverage over Enron's collapse and executive excess only makes the feelings more intense.

"When greed takes hold of the men in charge," says Hays, "all they can see are dollar signs in front of their eyes."

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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