Nasty Boys

The women screwed by Rent-A-Center are threatening to take the company to the cleaners. But Ernie Talley and the rest of his Texas bubbas are trying to have the last laugh.

"I do not believe that upper management promotes the advancement or enrichment of women," she wrote. "Nor do I believe that women are judged by the same standards as their male colleagues."

If the women at headquarters were complaining, they were hardly alone. As Talley's company grew, so did allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Jerry Schlichter, Mary Anne Sedey and Jon A. Ray are St. Louis lawyers representing the women of Rent-A-Center. Says Sedey: "I've been doing employment-discrimination law for 26 years and I have never, in 26 years, seen anything like what went on at Rent-A-Center."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Schlichter, Mary Anne Sedey and Jon A. Ray are St. Louis lawyers representing the women of Rent-A-Center. Says Sedey: "I've been doing employment-discrimination law for 26 years and I have never, in 26 years, seen anything like what went on at Rent-A-Center."
J. Ernest Talley
J. Ernest Talley

Even highly regarded veteran employees felt the sting. Just ask Claudine Wilfong, a former store manager in Arnold, Mo.

Wilfong had 11 years with Rent-A-Center when it was acquired by Talley's company, Renter's Choice, in 1998. Rent-A-Center had been a good place to work -- that is, before the company was sold to the people she now describes as the "good ol' boys from Texas."

She proudly displayed the plaques her store had received for winning store-of-the-month and sales contests. And she expected to serve the new company as a good manager, which she did by meeting or exceeding their new sales and collections goals.

But stereotypes seemed to matter more than job performance.

Wilfong recalls that when Rent-A-Center vice president Dowell Arnette spoke at a store managers' meeting in Kansas City, he joked about how the women were "probably better at selling washers and dryers" than the men. Arnette admitted he didn't really know anything about the machines or how to "press the buttons" because his wife did all the washing at home.

After the sale in 1998, the Texas owners also increased the lifting requirement for store employees from 50 pounds to 75. Managers such as Wilfong and Karen Dueker-Meyer of Farmington, Mo., claim they were ordered to send female workers out alone to make deliveries and pickups. Meyer says her market manager made her send a woman to collect a side-by-side refrigerator from a customer; if the employee refused, Meyer was supposed to fire her. But Wilfong and Meyer claim they were never encouraged to send men out alone on large deliveries.

James Weinrich, Oklahoma regional manager at the time of the 1998 acquisition, said in a sworn statement that Talley, Arnette and Arnette's brother, training director Joe Arnette, told him that the new weight-lifting requirements would "keep females from applying."

Weinrich added: "All three men made it a point that there was an unwritten rule that women employees should be sent out alone on deliveries." Weinrich said the thinking was, if you work them hard enough, they'll quit or give management a reason to fire them.

When executives from the home office came out to visit Weinrich's stores, instead of asking about a woman's job performance, executives such as Dowell Arnette and senior vice president Tom Lopez seemed more interested in her physical attributes. An overweight female employee was called a "fat bitch," and executives wanted to know from Weinrich whether attractive female employees "put out."

Other male managers had similar tales.

Rick Corey was an Ohio store manager for Crown TV before it was purchased by Talley. After the purchase, he recalls in a sworn statement, "the number of female employees in the nine-store district was reduced to a single female employee." And when Corey sent a female candidate to take a management test, he allegedly incurred the wrath of Bill Nutt, who would later rise to the rank of regional director. Nutt "came to my store in order to criticize and berate me for sending a female candidate," Corey says. Nutt allegedly told him, "In case you didn't notice, we do not employ women."

The message that women employees weren't wanted or welcome at Rent-A-Center started with the highest-ranking officers and filtered all the way down to delivery drivers.

Women claim they were sent out to handle deliveries alone. If a manager found out a woman was pregnant, she was often deemed "disabled" and fired on the spot. Teri Goodermote, who worked at a store in North Adams, Mass., claims that once her manager learned of her pregnancy, he started giving her the heavy deliveries and had her load a bedroom set onto a truck by herself or face termination. The job of cleaning bathrooms became known as "woman's work" in states as far-flung as Ohio, Florida and New York. Other women simply weren't hired -- many of their completed applications allegedly thrown in the trash can.

The atmosphere also seemed to give male co-workers a license to engage in base, crude and even abusive behavior. A woman who worked as an account manager in Atlantic Beach, Fla., alleges that her store manager popped hardcore-porn tapes into the store's VCRs and enjoyed stopping the shows at particularly graphic points. In El Reno, Okla., the male employees found a pornographic picture of a woman with facial features similar to those of an account manager. They showed customers the photos, claiming they were actually of the account manager. When a male assistant manager in Massachusetts grabbed a female account manager's backside and was met with a slap in the face, it was the woman who was disciplined for insubordination. Many of Rent-A-Center's female employees, such as Teresa Greenough, felt overwhelmed and helpless in the environment.

"I can't take it anymore," she eventually told her manager when she quit.

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