Maternity leave key
in Zanakis’ case
against KHON

Trial opens in discrimination
suit against Channel 2 News

By Debra Barayuga

A former reporter for KHON-TV alleges the main reason her employer reassigned and then fired her 3 1/2 years ago was because she took maternity leave after the birth of her second child.

Mary Zanakis, now a reporter at KITV, sued her previous employer, Emmis Communications Corp., Emmis Television Broadcasting LP, former KHON General Manager Kent Baker and then-News Director Jim McCoy, contending they violated her rights under the federal Family Medical Leave Act by not returning her to an equivalent position, then later terminating her.

"They took advantage of her being out of the public's sight -- out of sight, out of mind -- to shift her to a position of less visibility and then fire her," said her attorney, Thomas Pico, during opening statements yesterday in the jury trial before U.S. District Judge David Ezra.

Zanakis is asking that she be reinstated to her former position and is seeking damages for lost wages amounting to about $770,000.

The defendants deny violating Zanakis' rights or firing her because she had taken maternity leave. "Schedules and assignment changes ... are a fact of life in the TV news business," said Bruce Voss, attorney for Emmis, Baker & McCoy.

They contend she was given full pay and benefits during her leave and after she returned to work but was later terminated because KHON was experiencing serious budgetary problems in 1998-99 and needed to find more good reporters.

"Mary Zanakis was the highest paid and least productive, so she was let go," Voss said.

Voss said Zanakis was angry at losing her position on the morning news show and is looking for someone to blame. But he said the evidence will show that that Zanakis "had nobody to blame but herself."

Zanakis had worked for KHON Channel 2 for 18 1/2 years, the last five years as the morning news health anchor and producer. She had worked her way up to a substantial salary, in excess of $71,000. In late 1997 she was offered a three-year contract that would have paid her $72,665 in the first year, with $1,000 raises in each of the subsequent two years -- evidence, she contends, of her value to KHON.

Zanakis returned to work from maternity leave less than three months after her second child was born in December 1998. However, three days before she returned to work in March 1999, McCoy called to inform her she was being moved to a general assignment position.

Zanakis' new position was "a demotion in many respects," Pico said. It meant changing work hours and responsibilities. Zanakis was mostly covering stories given to her by the assignment editor and was using different skills. It was a position that had "significantly less status and less authority," Pico said.

When Zanakis was terminated June 18, 1999, she was making more than $70,000. It took her nine months to find a new job reporting for KITV, where she now makes about $45,000.

Voss said Zanakis had been given many opportunities by her employer and was the highest-paid reporter, but she took it all for granted. After repeated complaints about Zanakis' alleged poor job performance, personality conflicts with anchors on the morning news and failure to contribute what was expected from the highest-paid reporter, McCoy decided to eliminate the morning health segment, Voss said.

Pico said there was nothing in Zanakis' personnel file at KHON that indicated she was not pulling her weight or showed a lack of professionalism. Her file is devoid of any criticism by her supervisors. Pico said criticisms about Zanakis were raised after she filed her complaint and not before she was fired.

Pico and Zanakis are divorced but still live together. He is the father of the two children.

Zanakis' former co-workers at KHON, including Ray Lovell, Barbara Marshall, Leslie Wilcox and Ron Mizutani, are among the witnesses who will take the stand either for Zanakis or the defense.

Voss is also a former KHON reporter.

E-mail to City Desk


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