TALES FROM THE WORKPLACE: SEXUAL HARASSMENT EXPOSED, Pt. 1

Here at Abney & McCarty, we receive a large volume of calls from clients with questions about sexual harassment – what is sexual harassment? Is this situation a hostile work environment? What can I do about it?

We’ve written about these topics before, and have detailed the laws surrounding sexual harassment claims. But the best way to understand what sexual harassment is, and how to recognize when it is occurring at your job, is through the first-hand accounts of those who have experienced it in the past. So over the next few weeks, we will be posting articles that will recount situations that have occurred in workplaces here in the state, and around the country, so that you will be better able to recognize sexual harassment if it occurs at your job.

Today, we’ll be discussing the story of a woman named Amanda.  The facts presented in this story come from the allegations made in the case West v. Tyson Foods, Inc., which we discuss below. Amanda had just started her first week at a new job in a large food processing plant. In her position, Amanda worked on an enclosed assembly line with a big group of co-workers, mostly male. Shortly after beginning, Amanda started receiving comments from a few of her co-workers about various parts of her body. Some would whistle at her while she worked. Others asked her on dates, repeatedly. These incidents grew more and more frequent as time went on.

A few weeks after she had started, she was approached by the leader of her line while she was working. The leader grabbed Amanda and attempted to kiss her. Amanda tried to pull away from him, telling the man that she was married and that he needed to leave her alone. The man responded by asking Amanda if she would go to his house and have sex with him. When she again rebuffed his advances, the man smiled at her, grabbed his own crotch and shook it at her while making incredibly graphic statements. A number of other male co-workers who had been watching this situation take place began laughing. Amanda was humiliated.

She ran off the line and began crying. Her supervisor and her trainer met her as she was leaving the plant and asked what was wrong. She described the incident to the two men, as well as the other behavior she had been subjected to. Her supervisor initially attempted to brush the incident off as a joke, telling her not to take it personally, and that it was just the way the men on her line treated their female co-workers. When her supervisor realized that Amanda did not find the behavior funny, he promised that he would speak to her co-workers and get the situation resolved. He also requested that Amanda not report the harassment to Human Resources, so that he could handle the problem on his own before it was revealed to the plant’s management.

Unfortunately, the supervisor did nothing to stop the harassment. Amanda continued to receive comments and whistles while working, and was even groped by some of the men on the line. In her fifth week of work, Amanda was followed to her car one night after leaving the plant by a co-worker, which caused her to fear that she would be raped. After that night, Amanda decided to quit her position, and did not return to work again.

A few days later, the company officially terminated Amanda, citing “job abandonment” as the reason. When Amanda went to the plant to pick up her final paycheck, she conducted an exit interview with the company’s HR Manager. During the interview, Amanda gave the HR Manager a detailed account of the harassment she had experienced. The HR Manager promised Amanda that he would investigate the situation even though she was no longer an employee. However, that investigation was never performed.

What Amanda experienced is a textbook example of what a hostile work environment looks like. Unfortunately, all the events described above actually happened, and were documented in the opinion of the Sixth Circuit case West v. Tyson Foods, Inc. (PDF). After Amanda left her job, she filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. She then filed a lawsuit against her employer in the Federal District Court in the Western District of Kentucky, and won, receiving $880,363.29 in compensatory damages and $300,000.00 in punitive damages.

Amanda’s story is similar to those that we hear from clients all the time – harassment in the workplace, reporting harassment, and then the employer taking no action or inadequate action to remedy the problem. These are violations of your rights under Title VII and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. If you have experienced a situation like this, you likely have legal options available to you. You should seek the advice of counsel to determine what those options are, and to seek compensation for the treatment you have been subjected to.

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