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Striking Coca-Cola workers sue after benefits terminated


SEATTLE—A group of striking Washington Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. workers have filed a lawsuit claiming their employer terminated their health benefits in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

The suit, filed Aug. 27 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, asserts that health benefits were “wrongfully withheld from striking employees” after they went on strike Aug. 23.

“On or about August 24, 2010, Coca-Cola unilaterally and without notice or lawful authority ceased to permit or enable the class representatives and putative class members to make the employee contributions toward the cost of their coverage under the plan through monthly payroll deduction,” states the suit, which seeks class action status on behalf of approximately 500 full-time Coca-Cola employees.

Moreover, “Coca-Cola at no time communicated to employees the specific reasons for its termination of benefits and employee contributions,” the suit asserts. “Coca-Cola did not notify or otherwise inform employees of any right to, or process for, making a claim regarding or otherwise appealing Coca-Cola’s action. The class has therefore been denied access to any claims and/or appeal procedures that may exist under the plan.”

The suit also cites provisions of Coca-Cola Enterprises’ summary benefit plan description, which it says states: “membership for you and your enrolled family members may be continued as long as you are employed by the employer and meet eligibility requirements. It ceases on the earliest of the date your employment ends, the date you no longer meet eligibility requirements…or you fail to make any required contribution toward the cost of your coverage. In any case, your coverage would end at the expiration of the period covered by your last contribution.”

A notice from Coca-Cola Enterprises dated Aug. 25 that is attached to the suit states: “We have received questions from some of you about your benefits. Your benefits have been terminated, effective August 24, 2010, because you are not working and thus no longer eligible for benefits. This is because the union has directed you to engage in this work stoppage. You will be receiving COBRA information in the mail this week that will detail how you can continue your benefits if you choose to pay the out-of-pocket cost. COBRA is a federal law that allows you to continue health benefits without interruption, but it will be entirely at your own expense.”

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises could not be reached.