AUGUSTA, Maine — A major New England grocery chain discriminated against older workers in the way that it implemented a company-wide layoff in November 2012, the Maine Human Rights Commission found this week.

That decision may have some far-reaching consequences, according to Jeffrey Young, an Augusta-based employment law attorney who represented three Maine women who filed discrimination charges against Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc., on behalf of themselves and other affected employees. Eligible workers, including almost 60 Mainers, might be entitled to up to $500,000 in damages for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, in addition to back pay, Young said.

Attorney Joshua Scott, who represented Shaw’s before the Maine Human Rights Commission on Monday, declined to comment to the BDN on the matter.

In the 2012 layoff, Shaw’s let go of 700 workers throughout New England. In Rhode Island, some part-time workers were included in the layoff, but in Maine and the other New England states, only full-time workers were let go, Young said.

Among those laid off were his clients Lorraine Scammon of Saco, Theresa Charette of Sanford and Dorothy Riley of Windham, who filed discrimination charges against the grocery store chain. All three of the women were over 55 and had worked for Shaw’s Supermarkets for more than 30 years when they lost their jobs.

Maine Human Rights Commission Investigator Angela Tizon wrote in her Dec. 14 report that a representative from Shaw’s produced documents that showed the layoff was applied without age as a consideration. The three Maine complainants, however, argued that regardless of whether age was a factor in the layoff decisions, a disproportionate number of older workers were affected.

“This is because the layoff targeted only full-time employees, who generally were older than part-time employees given their years of service,” Tizon wrote.

According to the Maine Human Rights Act, it is unlawful to terminate or discriminate against people in the workplace on the basis of age.

“By exempting part-timers from the layoff, Shaw’s literally let go of hundreds of its oldest and most loyal employees in favor of retaining younger, junior employees,” Young said. “In some job categories, almost 200 younger workers kept their jobs, while older workers were sent packing. Since when does a part-time employee have more job security than a full-timer?”

The Shaw’s representative told Tizon that the company had been forced in 2012 to re-evaluate its full-time staffing needs because of an “unprecedented level of competition” that had taken a toll on the chain’s profits. Shaw’s needed to save at least $550,000 per week in labor cost, and a financial analysis showed that a layoff of full-time rather than part-time employees was necessary, the company representative told the investigator. The representative said that the hourly wage for a part-time employee is $9.25 rather than the roughly $20 earned by full-timers. Additionally, part-time workers have more schedule flexibility.

According to Shaw’s, had the chain laid off part-time employees, to achieve the same cost savings they would have needed to let go of more than 3,000 workers — 17 percent of the company’s workforce instead of the 4 percent that had been laid off.

But the Maine women who challenged the way their former employer argued Shaw’s officials could have used alternative methods in order to minimize the adverse impact on older employees, including reducing hours or reducing the pay of full-time workers.

“This would have been far preferable than the loss of full employment,” Tizon wrote in the report.

Tizon wrote that while Shaw’s Supermarkets’ actions limiting the layoffs to only full-time employees “was neutral on its face,” it disproportionately affected older employees. She also agreed with the women that Shaw’s could have achieved the same business goal with other cost-reduction methods.

When the Maine Human Rights Commission met on Monday in Augusta, the commissioners unanimously found reasonable grounds to believe that the grocery store chain had discriminated against the Maine women on the basis of age by implementing a practice that had an adverse impact based on age.

The decision by the commission will trigger a mediation process during which commission staff will attempt to reach an agreeable settlement between the three women and Shaw’s. Court action remains possible if a settlement cannot be reached.

Young said that one of his clients cried as she talked to him Thursday about the commission’s decision.

“They were let go 26 months ago. They’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” he said. “They feel good that there’s some sense of vindication.”