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    Outback gender bias suit begins

    A former employee says she was fired after complaining about unequal pay and duties lost to a man she trained.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001


    TAMPA -- Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Steve Wilson, one of the original Bucs, was in prison serving three years for DUI-manslaughter. By 1997, he needed a work-release job.

    A friend, then-state Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, called Outback Steakhouse chief executive officer Chris Sullivan and asked Sullivan to hire Wilson.

    Sullivan, one of the founders of the Tampa-based chain of nearly 600 restaurants, hired Wilson, paying him $40,000 a year.

    The female Outback employee who trained Wilson for his new job, and who says she was ultimately replaced by him, said she was being paid $24,000 to perform identical work.

    There begins a federal sex discrimination lawsuit that went to trial in Tampa's U.S. District Court on Monday and is expected to last most of the week. Former Outback employee Dena Zechella, 35, says she was fired by Outback in April 1998 after she complained about unequal pay and duties lost to Wilson, who once attended the same Bible study class as Grant.

    Zechella's lawyer, Ryan Christopher Rodems, said Sullivan hired Wilson as a political favor to Grant.

    "I felt like somebody ripped my heart out," Zechella testified. "I gave a lot to that company."

    Outback attorney William Sizemore told jurors that Sullivan's decision to hire the former football player was an act of compassion. When he hired Wilson, 47, Sullivan wasn't sure where he would work within Outback, Sizemore said.

    Sizemore portrayed Zechella as a disgruntled employee who was dissatisfied with her job and salary long before Wilson was hired.

    He said Zechella, an assistant site manager for Outback, was an interior designer with no experience in the field she wanted to work on behalf of Outback: selecting sites where new restaurants would be built.

    "That was frankly a ticket to frustration," Sizemore said. "It resulted in a bad attitude. That affected her performance."

    Zechella said she was extremely pleased when Outback hired her in 1995. She said she got along well with her boss.

    But then company officials announced that Wilson was being hired, and Zechella was tagged to teach him her job. For a time, she said, the two worked side by side.

    Zechella said she soon wondered if she would have a future with Outback. Wilson "was pushing me out of my job," she said. "I was scared."

    Zechella said she complained to her supervisors, both about displaced duties and unequal pay. Outback soon promoted her and gave her a raise.

    But she said it was actually a demotion to a job with nothing more than secretarial responsibilities, which Outback denies.

    Right before a 1998 vacation, she took her concerns about her future with Outback to Sullivan. Zechella said he told her he'd get back to her.

    When she returned from vacation, she was fired.

    Then, Zechella said, her boss asked her to sign a release that would have barred her from ever suing Outback if she wanted to get her last paycheck and severance. She refused.

    The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has filed suit against Outback, a suit that Zechella and her own attorneys have joined.

    Sullivan is expected to testify today. Zechella is seeking punitive damages and back pay.

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