The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settled a sexual harassment lawsuit this week against Huntwood Industries, one of the Spokane area’s largest manufacturers.
Huntwood has agreed to pay $100,000 to a former female employee, who alleged that the company failed to take appropriate action after she was the victim of lewd remarks and sexual overtures by male co-workers.
Huntwood, the largest custom cabinetmaker in the West, denied the allegations. However, as part of the settlement, it must now provide training for managers, supervisors and employees, as well as forward future discrimination complaints to the EEOC.
“It is unfortunate that we continue to see a lot of this type of egregious sexual harassment toward female employees in the workplace,” Jeanette Leino, district director of the EEOC’s Seattle district office, said in a press release.
“We are pleased, however, that the parties here were able to resolve this matter and that Huntwood has voluntarily agreed to a wide range of measures to prevent future problems.”
According to the EEOC, no other complaint has ever been filed against Huntwood, which was founded in the late 1980s and employs about 500 people. It is privately owned and operated by Tim Hunt and his family.
Randy Quintero, human resources director for Huntwood, said he didn’t have more to add to the information released by the EEOC and declined further comment.
The sexual harassment allegedly began in October of 2001, shortly after the woman took a job with the Spokane Valley company, according to Keller Allen, the woman’s attorney.
The woman, who lives in Spokane and doesn’t want to be identified, said she worked closely with three male employees building cabinet doors. The men allegedly made indecent comments and jokes about her physique, Allen said. They also turned the lights off whenever she went into the restroom, she said.
The woman reported the behavior to her boss, who told her that the men were only kidding around, according to the victim, who was 27 at the time. The harassment continued until she quit on Dec. 28, 2001 – less than three months after she took the job.
“The company didn’t really do anything to stop it,” said Allen, who specializes in labor and employment law. “They certainly listened to her, but there was no remedial action.”
Allen said he was able to find people who witnessed the harassment, as well as another former employee – a woman whom his client replaced – who also complained about the abusive behavior she had experienced for a year before she, too, was forced to quit.
“She just tried to do her job to the best of her ability,” Allen said, describing the effects of the harassment on his client. “But it stressed her out. It was so uncomfortable that it was making her ill.”
After the woman left the company in December, she contacted the EEOC, which investigated her claim and filed a lawsuit on her behalf in U.S. District Court.
“It was just unfair,” the woman said. “I was worried for other women who worked there.”
According to the EEOC, the company’s alleged failure to address the victim’s claims violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment or pregnancy) or national origin and protects employees who complain about such offenses from retaliation.
The lawsuit against Huntwood was one of eight sexual harassment claims filed by the EEOC’s Seattle district office during the fiscal year of Oct. 1, 2002, to Sept. 30, 2003. The Seattle district has enforcement jurisdiction for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. Not every complaint, however, turns into a lawsuit.
It’s difficult to tell how widespread sexual harassment in the workplace is simply because not all victims are aware of their rights and where to turn to for help, Allen said.
Lisa Cox, an attorney with the EEOC’s Seattle district office, said that people who believe they are victims of sexual harassment should file a charge with the EEOC, which is a federal entity, or Washington state’s Human Rights Commission.
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