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November 27, 2001
Merrill Lynch's Very Public Employee Dispute

Since May, airplanes towing banners with such messages as, "Merrill Lynch Discriminates Against Women," have appeared over golf tournaments, auto races, and vintage-car shows sponsored by the investment firm.

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The banners, which have proven a distraction at the events, are the latest in a series of protests by a vocal group of women, all of them former or current Merrill Lynch brokers, according to The New York Times.

Though the class-action lawsuit they brought against the firm was settled three years ago, they want to publicize their unresolved complaints.

They told the Times that they remain unsatisfied with the way Merrill Lynch has acted since the settlement. Some are still waiting for their cases to be resolved under the settlement, while others have rejected the company's monetary offers and are awaiting hearings on their complaints.

"The women are angry that Merrill Lynch isn't taking them or their claims seriously," said Nancy Thomas, who has helped to organize the airplane protests.

She is one of eight women whose claims - that the firm systematically underpaid and failed to promote brokers who are women - formed the basis for the lawsuit.

The women specifically alleged that office managers favored male brokers by assigning them larger and more active accounts from customers who approached the firm for financial advice, or from customers whose brokers were leaving the firm, or from investors participating in initial public offerings. If the women complained to management, they said in the suit, they risked criticism and retaliation.

Merrill Lynch has denied that there was systemic discrimination at the firm. But it has acknowledged some incidences of inappropriate behavior, which it says it has fixed. The company has resolved nearly 600 of more than 900 claims, instituted procedures intended to make account distribution a more open process based on merit, and said that it had fully complied with the 1998 settlement agreement.

"We've implemented a variety of programs and procedures to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and has an equal opportunity to succeed and grow their business," a company spokeswoman said.

Some of the activists, who have not yet settled their claims with the firm, say conditions for women at Merrill have not improved. They contend that the most lucrative customer accounts are still being steered to men.

"I thought things would definitely change, that there would be a better working environment," said a broker who works in one of Merrill's Northeastern retail offices and spoke on the condition that neither she nor the branch would be identified. But, she said, "nothing has changed."

For that reason, she said, she has helped finance the plane flights, instead of confronting her supervisor with her continued dissatisfaction over the distribution of accounts.

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