In what is thought to be the first case of its kind in Idaho, eight women have sued J.R. Simplot Co., claiming hundreds of female employees have been paid millions less than their male counterparts.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Thursday in 4th District Court on behalf of more than 600 women employees at the Boise-based agricultural and chemical company, alleges female workers were routinely paid less in salaries, bonuses and benefits than men doing the same or similar work.The lawsuit also charges that the company regularly denied promotions and pay raises to its salaried female employees.

The complaint claims men in some jobs at Simplot were paid as much as 13 percent more than women with the same length of service and responsibilities, and that the difference averaged 5 to 6 percent throughout the company among salaried workers.

Boise attorney Robert Huntley, a former state Supreme Court justice representing the women, said on Friday a "low, conservative" estimate in the difference in pay alone amounted to $1 million a year for the past eight years.

"It just appears to me with regard to wage and sex discrimination that Simplot, compared to other companies, has a very bad record," Huntley said.

Simplot spokesman Fred Zerza said the company denies the charges.

"It appears the allegations are without merit," Zerza said Friday. "It's important to keep in mind that allegations are easy to make. Whether or not they have merit is an entirely different matter."

All of the named plaintiffs are Canyon County residents who were fired from Simplot's food division in Caldwell in the past two years.

They are seeking damages of at least $25,000 each in lost income and benefits. The other 610 salaried women employees at Simplot would share in any judgment.

Huntley said that amount would depend on how many years it's ruled the company allegedly practiced wage discrimination. He said federal law provides for double damages.

"We hope in this lawsuit that they will not only collect the past-due compensation for these women, but also it will be an inducement for the company to utilize proper and fair criteria for advancement and payment for women and minorities in the future," Huntley said.

Leslie Goddard, deputy attorney general at the Idaho Human Rights Commission, said she was not aware of any similar class-action suit ever going to court in Idaho.

Since 1983, Simplot has used a nationwide job classification system called the Hay Plan, in which jobs are grouped based on accountability, knowledge and problem solving. Positions are assigned point values, and a salary range is established for comparable jobs.

The complaint charges that women's pay raises continued to be at the lowest end of the salary ranges because of the "subjective judgment of an all or predominately male supervisory work force which results in and perpetuates discrimination against women."

Huntley contended "the whole purpose of the Hay Plan is to prevent discrimination," and that Simplot's bias in hiring and promotions was evident in the lack of women in management positions - eight of 182 - and the 5.7 percent average difference in pay.

The suit is the latest in a string of job-related litigation against the company in the past three months.

Six of the women in the current action have also charged wrongful termination and sex and age discrimination in another class-action suit filed in January. They are asking $250,000 each in damages in that action.

And in late December, the Idaho Supreme Court told 4th District Judge Gerald Shroeder to justify why he reduced a jury's $1 million award in 1987 to Glenn O'Dell, who also was fired as the company's human resources administrator.