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Age discrimination lawsuit against UW System moves forward
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Age discrimination lawsuit against UW System moves forward

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One job candidate was 53 with nearly three decades of marketing and communications experience with the University of Wisconsin System. Another was a 23-year-old college student with less than a year of experience and weeks to go before earning her degree.

Both sought an entry-level position as a UW Colleges communications specialist. A hiring committee in 2016 went with the younger candidate.

Last month a federal court judge denied the System’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit, which was filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2018 on behalf of the more experienced candidate who was passed over, longtime former System employee Bambi Butzlaff Voss.

The judge’s opinion noted the EEOC’s evidence of age discrimination was “not overwhelming,” but could be enough to persuade a jury.

The federal agency that oversees workforce discrimination complaints is asking the court to order the System to hire Butzlaff Voss and provide back pay. Julianne Bowman, director of the EEOC district that includes Wisconsin, said in a statement at the time the suit was filed that workers over the age of 40 should have the same opportunities as those less than half their age.

“Ignoring a candidate’s decades of experience relevant to the available job, because of her age, to hire someone with less than two years of experience is illegal discrimination,” she said.

The System has said in court filings that there was “no connection” between Butzlaff’s age and the decision not to hire her.

System spokesman Mark Pitsch and EEOC attorney Jeanne Szromba declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. A message left with Butzlaff Voss was not returned Tuesday.

UW Colleges identified Butzlaff Voss’ position as a communications specialist at UW-Waukesha for layoff after lawmakers cut about $5 million from its annual budget in 2015. Part of the cuts included centralizing marketing and communications work from the 13 two-year campuses to seven positions in Madison.

A committee interviewed Butzlaff Voss for one of the new jobs that required no professional experience but did not make her an offer.

The EEOC argues the System has provided “shifting explanations” for its decision to not hire Butzlaff Voss.

The System initially told the EEOC that she lacked experience.

In court filings, the System said Butzlaff Voss did not thoroughly answer questions in her interview and was critical of the decision to centralize marketing and communications for UW Colleges. The committee sought someone with the “flexibility and adaptability to the new centralized business model” and did not observe this in Butzlaff Voss.

They saw the 23-year-old as someone who understood the office’s needs and had made a positive impression in her two months interning part-time for the UW College’s marketing office.

A System employee serving on the hiring committee said in a deposition that the committee did not look at candidates’ performance reviews or call previous colleagues.

If the committee had, members would have found Butzlaff Voss’ performance evaluations over her 26-year career with the System to be “uniformly” positive with a former supervisor calling her “invaluable,” according to the judge’s opinion.

The System denies changing its reasons for not hiring Butzlaff Voss, saying the initial explanation — that she lacked experience — was a “misstatement” by an attorney who didn’t consult with the hiring committee before responding to the EEOC.

The judge called the System’s explanations for not hiring Butzlaff Voss “subjective” and “vague.”

Jury selection and trial is scheduled for February, according to court records.

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