With the backing of the United Steelworkers union, FreightCar America Inc. employees filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the company is laying off nearly 170 workers to avoid pension obligations.

The lawsuit claims the railcar company violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 by furloughing Johnstown workers to prevent them from becoming eligible for retirement benefits.

A FreightCar administrator in Chicago said the lawsuit is being reviewed.

“It is our position that the suit is without merit,” said Tom McCarthy, senior vice president of human resources.

“Beyond that, it is our company policy not to comment on pending litigation.”

The workers have asked United States District Court in Western Pennsylvania for an immediate injunction requiring the company to allow them to continue to work and accrue the service necessary to gain pension eligibility or benefits, said Joe Stuligross, a United Steelworkers attorney in Pittsburgh.

Stuligross said he hopes the court will schedule a hearing date within a few weeks.

“The unlawful conduct of the company here in Johnstown is outrageous because it deprives (employees) of their right to what they worked to achieve,” Stuligross said.

“We absolutely hope the judge will recognize this gross injustice and grant prompt relief.”

Stuligross contended that, during several meetings, FreightCar America officials told union representatives that a large group of employees would be reaching 20 years of service, thus adding tens of millions of dollars to the company’s legacy costs.

He also contends that company officials said they could not let that happen and added that it “will not happen.”

Earlier this year, Stuligross said, FreightCar America began implementation of a plan to prevent employees from reaching eligibility for pension benefits by beginning a series of layoffs affecting 237 employees.

Of that number, 70 were furloughed just months short of the service required for a deferred, vested pension, he said.

On May 31, the company issued a second layoff notice for 187 workers, Stuligross said.

Those layoffs, most of which will take place Friday, will prevent about 100 additional workers from becoming eligible for a pension and health- and life-insurance benefits, he said.

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