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Employees Claim Sexual Harassment Cover-up at Chicago-Based Company

Sexual harassment made national headlines during the 1990s after Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill became household names. A recent case filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in U.S. District Court claims victims of harassment who speak out are being retaliated against, and the number of these types of cases are on the rise.

The lawsuit, filed March 5, alleges Jay Medicar Transportation, a medical transport company based in Chicago, tolerated sexual harassment. Several female employees say the company knew of harassment complaints and did nothing, even after a supervisor retaliated against one female employee.

Tina Stillwell and other employees claim they were subjected to repeated, sexually demeaning comments, according to the court records; their supervisor demanded sexual favors, and these same employees were allegedly the target of racial slurs. When Stillwell filed a complaint, the lawsuit states, she was fired in November 2005.

Harassment is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not only does sexual harassment include sexual demands or sexual contact but also creating a work atmosphere that is intimidating, hostile or offensive.

Only a small percentage of cases are tried by the employment opportunity commission because of the limited resources for the high volume of cases charged, said Justin Mulaire, the commission’s trial attorney. In Chicago, Mulaire said approximately 30 cases were filed by the commission in 2009.

Nationwide, the commission filed cases for188 of the 93,277 complaints brought to their office in 2009. The number of sexual harassment complaints increased 15 percent from approximately 24,000 to 28,000 between 1999 and 2009.

“These cases are difficult to prove,” said Mulaire. “Most of time when there’s discrimination there’s no videotape, and the case turns on the credibility of the witness.”

Complaints are first filed within the human resources department before the commission becomes involved. The number of retaliation claims 17,883 to 28,948 jumped 39 percent between 1999 and 2009.

People need to feel free to make these types of complaints to their human resources department and not fear losing their job, Mulaire said. The goal of these cases goes beyond relief for the employees he represents, said Mulaire, and aims to promote all employers’ compliance with the law.

“When we file a case, our overarching goal is deterrence,” said Mulaire. “We want to help demonstrate to employers to take these alleged activities seriously.”

But complaints were not brought to the human resource department’s attention, said Eric Amazaleg, owner of Jay Medicar Transportation. Amazaleg took over the company after the alleged incidents of sexual harassment occurred in 2005.

After performing its own investigation, Amazaleg said he doesn’t understand why the suit was filed in the first place.

“I’m meeting with my attorneys and considering a lawsuit against the EEOC,” said Amazaleg. “None of us were notified (about the harassment).”

In tough economic times, it’s more difficult for employees to quit and find new jobs, and the culture of harassment continues to fester, said Fraeda Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute in California. Klein said retaliation against employees who complain and multiple forms of harassment are on the rise.

“This case is reflective of a trend that harassment tends to travel in packs,” Klein said.

The true costs of tolerating this type of culture are bigger than lawsuits, said Klein.

“Employers need to recognize they’re losing money if they ignore harassment,” said Klein. “Because employees who witness harassment have less incentive to be productive or loyal or tell their friends and relatives not to work their or buy its products. Prevention is prudent.”

Sexual harassment still takes place, and holding employers accountable legally might be the most effective way to address the problem, said Peter M. LaSorsa, an attorney who represents victims of sexual harassment.

“The idea that corporations are going to police themselves when it comes to sexual harassment is ridiculous,” said LaSorsa. “Left on their own, employers won’t do the right thing.”

In either case, sexual harassment is about using power over an employee, said LaSorsa.  Employers don’t want anyone to rock the boat and often retaliate and fire those who complain, LaSorsa said.

No hearing date has yet been scheduled in the case, but the defendants’ response is due May 4.

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