Suit claims CBS Broadcasting paid slave wages and practiced sex and age discrimination

Gary Nelson

A federal magistrate judge in Miami has given the green light for a class-action labor law and sex and age discrimination lawsuit to go forward against CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

The ruling could have nationwide impact on CBS’s 29 owned-and-operated television stations, known as CBS Television Stations, Inc.

The case, brought by former WFOR-CBS4 Miami freelance reporter, Silva Harapetian (her legal name is Harapeti), alleges that WFOR routinely worked her 50 to 60 hours a week when she was a freelance reporter and producer over a seven year period.  She and “other similarly situated” individuals allegedly were paid no overtime, no vacation pay, allowed no sick leave pay and received no health care benefits.

Harapetian’s suit is unprecedented, in that Magistrate Judge Lauren Lewis’s ruling permits employees and former employees of CBS’s 29 company-owned stations to join in.

Harapetian alleges that she was instructed to list 8 hours on her timesheet each day, even if she worked many more, which she says she did routinely.

In a hearing earlier this year, WFOR comptroller, Carl Larson, could not dispute that he directed Harapetian to submit inaccurate time sheets, misrepresenting her actual hours.  CBS operations executive, Joel Goldberg, said in the hearing that the company’s stations were in step with per diem procedures that corporate executives were aware of.  A CBS labor relations executive testified that for administrative “convenience,” per diem employees were instructed to list 8 hours on their time sheets each day.

Harapetian was paid $210 a day, whether she worked eight hours or twenty.

Harapetian said she was repeatedly promised a full-time job with benefits when one became available.  Openings came and went, and Harapetian remained per diem.  When she finally confronted News Director Liz Roldan, she says Roldan told her the job “was not available” to her.

Harapetian says she was denied even a modest request for an increase in her per diem pay rate, with no success.  She was forced to turn in her leased car, and buy a motor scooter to ride to and from the television station.

Adding insult to injury, Harapetian was allegedly ordered by Roldan, the news director, to give up her sideline work in multi-media education.  “Commit to work at CBS,” and “figure out where your priorities are,” Harapetian quotes Roldan as saying, a threat, Harapetian clams, that her outside work would prevent her continuing to work for CBS.

Harapetian claims she was paid less than male and younger female reporters, thus her age and sex discrimination complaint.

CBS did not respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing, however, CBS calls Harapetian’s suit baseless.  The company says she didn’t bring her complaint in a “timely basis,” and failed to provide evidence supporting her allegations.  CBS claims Harapetian has failed to name employees or provide evidence of males being paid more than she was.  In a seeming contradiction of its own argument, CBS’s filing notes that Harapetian cites freelance reporter, Hank Tester, as being among those paid more than she was.

Not yet having received national coverage, Harapetian has been joined in her suit so far by just two former employees, former WFOR per diem reporter, Tiani Jones, and former WCBS, Channel 2 New York per diem reporter, Don Champion.  Both echo claims of excess work hours without benefits as alleged by Harapetian.

If current and former per diem employees of CBS Television stations prevail in their lawsuit, lead attorney, Peter Hoogerwoerd of Miami says each will receive an “average” of the back wages to which they were entitled, in addition to punitive damages for “mental anguish, personal suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life.”

“There is a reason that CBS is fighting it and wants to settle,” Hoogerwoerd said.  “They know it is going to be a substantial amount of money.”

The suit against the broadcast giant could potentially be hampered if additional current or former employees from CBS’s 29 owned-and-operated stations do not “opt in” to the complaint.

(Editor’s note:  Gary Nelson is a retired, 26 year, full-time reporter for CBS-4 in Miami.  He is not a plaintiff, but has been subpoenaed as a witness in this case.)

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