Where the Boys Are

It's a man's world at Plano-based Rent-A-Center, a lawsuit alleges

But 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.

And 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, Missouri, claim they were ordered to send female workers out alone to make deliveries and pickups. But Wilfong and Dueker-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."

Former Rent-A-Center CEO Ernie Talley permitted a corporate culture that was brutal to female employees, a lawsuit alleges.
Former Rent-A-Center CEO Ernie Talley permitted a corporate culture that was brutal to female employees, a lawsuit alleges.

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 Talley purchased it. 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."

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, Massachusetts, 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.

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, Florida, alleges that her store manager popped hard-core porn tapes into the store's VCRs. In El Reno, Oklahoma, 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.

Before it became part of Talley's empire in 1998, Rent-A-Center's workforce was 20.9 percent female. That same year, Talley's company, Renter's Choice, had a female workforce of 1.8 percent. Two years after Talley bought Rent-A-Center and merged it with his company, the proportion of women in the combined workforce had fallen to 8.5 percent. At the same time, one regional manager urged his store managers in a memo to "continue to hire gents."

It wasn't any better at the top levels of the company. According to a 1999 company directory, all seven vice presidents were men, all 45 male regional directors were men, 261 men and seven women held the position of market manager and 30 men and two women were service managers. In the October 2000 company newsletter, Rental Times, the cover featured a group photo of Rent-A-Center's regional directors--all men. Inside, the headline read, "Meet the 'Suits' who try to motivate us."

The "suits" clearly motivated ex-employees such as Claudine Wilfong.

On March 15, 1999, Wilfong filed a complaint with the St. Louis office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company "engaged in class-wide discrimination" in St. Louis and across the country.

Sparked by Wilfong's complaint, the EEOC joined with Wilfong's lawyers in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in East St. Louis. As the case developed, they amassed evidence from more than 270 women and 30 men in 47 states that painted a picture of a company intent on purging women from its ranks.

Faced with a mountain of evidence and a demand for damages exceeding $400 million, the good ol' boys traveled to Kansas City, where another judge, some compliant lawyers and clueless plaintiffs might just make the whole mess disappear.

J. Ernest Talley entered the rent-to-own business after opening an appliance store, Mr. T's, in Kansas in the early '60s. According to a 1991 profile in Progressive Rentals, a trade magazine, Talley noticed that banks were becoming less willing to make small loans for appliance purchases. To bridge the credit gap, Talley began experimenting with the rent-to-own concept. By 1974, he had 14 stores scattered throughout the South and Midwest. He hired men who subsequently developed into industry leaders--men such as Tom Devlin, who co-founded Rent-A-Center.
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