Some gay and lesbian employees at 20th Century Fox are “extremely distressed” by a memo that implied the studio’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action policy does not extend to sexual orientation.

In response to a memo sent out last week by Fox prexy Strauss Zelnick, stating the studio’s objectives of its EEO/Affirmative Action program, an anonymous group of gay and lesbian staffers retorted with their own statement: “It is painful to know that you do not consider it important to include sexual orientation as a basis of non-discrimination.”

They added, “While in reality, we are well aware that we are treated unequally in terms of compensation, promotions and extension of health benefits to those we love … we do expect that in its statements of policy ‘on paper’ Fox at least recognizes its obligation to comply with the law.”

Accordingly, the authors of the memo attached a copy of AB 2601, a bill in the California Legislature recently signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson, which prohibits “discrimination or different treatment in any aspect of employment or opportunity for employment” based on sexual orientation.”

When asked what prompted him to send out the EEO policy memo of Oct. 1 and why it did not include a provision for sexual preference, Zelnick said such a notice is “sent out annually to remind employees of just how important non-discrimination is.”

He claims the omission was simply an oversight–“an inadvertent mistake and one I’m awfully sorry about and don’t blame them for being upset.”

Zelnick continued: “We goofed. It is clearly the policy of this company not to discriminate against sexual orientation and that was inadvertently left out of the memorandum.” He noted that Fox’s official policy manual, which is given to all new employees, has included a clause about non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation for the past two years.

Dean Ferris, Fox’s senior VP of employee relations, who assumes overall responsibility for the direction of Fox’s EEO/Affirmative Action program, agreed that the error in the recent annual policy memo was strictlyclerical.

Those who drafted the Oct. 1 memo “pulled it off a policy statement that was a number of years old and when they updated it they omitted the sexual orientation (clause).”

In the next few days, Ferris said, “We are sending out an addendum emphasizing our position with regards to non-discrimination with regards to sexual orientation.”

Asked if there were currently any discrimination claims of any kind, including sexual orientation, pending against Fox, Zelnick acknowledged, “In a company this size there may well be certain claims pending, but I’m not aware of them. … Again, it’s our policy not to discriminate.”

Zelnick added that just last week Fox “passed with flying colors” an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission audit that determines whether companies comply with regulations.

Asked if he expects any change in Fox’s policy of not extending health benefits to gay and lesbian partners, Zelnick would only say, “We’re constantly reviewing our policies for appropriateness– it’s an ongoing process.”

So far, MCA is Hollywood’s only major entertainment industry employer to offer gay and lesbian workers the same right as married employees to protect committed partners (Daily Variety, May 18).

Other studios are expected to follow MCA’s lead on this front, but none has yet implemented similar policies.

Regarding other gay and lesbian concerns about unequal treatment in terms of compensation and promotions, Zelnick responded, “Obviously, I don’t agree with that statement. I have an open door to have discussions about their concerns and I’ve never had discussions of that nature with an employee of this company where someone said, ‘I’m being held back because of my sexual orientation.’ “

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