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Complaints about sexual harassment and workplace culture at Casa Latina in Seattle lead to board investigation

UPDATED: Tue., June 1, 2021

By Nina Shapiro and Manuel Villa Seattle Times

Casa Latina, a decades-old organization founded to empower immigrant workers and provide job and educational opportunities, has been thrust into turmoil amid a series of protests questioning the nonprofit’s handling of sexual harassment and assault allegations.

The board announced last week it would investigate after hearing complaints related to the allegations and “overall workplace culture” from some of its 37 staffers, as well as from former employees and people whom Casa Latina refers to as “members” – those who come to the organization for job referrals.

“An immediate next step includes retaining necessary and skilled experts to investigate and gather pertinent information, review practices and procedures and make a full report to the board of directors,” said a board statement, which added it would also provide mediation and work to rebuild trust within the organization and larger community.

Several sexual misconduct allegations, as well as additional complaints about disrespectful treatment, are directed at a staffer who left the organization recently, according to a statement by Executive Director Marcos Martinez and interviews with roughly a dozen people currently or formerly affiliated with the organization. Martinez’s statement does not say if the person was fired.

Three women said they filed police reports this year about the former staffer, alleging behavior ranging from verbal harassment to groping. Responding to an inquiry about police report case numbers the women provided, Seattle police said they forwarded two of the cases to the city attorney’s office for consideration of criminal charges. A review is ongoing.

A King County Superior Court judge Tuesday denied a request by one of the women for a sexual assault protection order against the ex-staffer. The judge wrote that the conduct described – rubbing her back and rear end and making sexually suggestive comments and gestures – did not rise to the necessary level.

The former staffer declined to comment.

As these complaints percolated, current and former workers talked about other alleged incidents involving some of the 220 men and women who seek day labor and housekeeping jobs through Casa Latina. Several people described being propositioned or touched inappropriately at events held by the organization.

In the most serious allegation, a woman referred to domestic jobs through Casa Latina said she was raped six years ago by a man who also came to the organization for job referrals. Filled with shame, she said, she didn’t tell anyone at Casa Latina about it until much later and waited three years to file a police report. Seattle police said they were unable to obtain evidence needed to proceed with an investigation.

Board President Pilar Pacheco, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Casa Latina has conducted sexual harassment training. And workers said meetings have been devoted to the issue.

“Championing sexual harassment protections has been a core part of our work,” Martinez wrote in his statement.

Still, those critical of Casa Latina say management minimized its own problems and seemed to want to keep allegations quiet.

“I am very disappointed with my leaders,” said Lucina Carrillo, a staffer who takes calls from potential employers and helps drive workers to their job, and whose allegations against the former staffer at the heart of many complaints initially prompted the protests. There have been several demonstrations so far this month, outside Casa Latina’s offices on 17th Avenue South, near South Jackson Street.

Like others at the protests, Carrillo, who said she wants to be named as she brings her case to public attention, is calling for Martinez and other top leaders to resign.

Martinez declined to be interviewed.

A former New Mexico public radio news director and leader of Entre Hermanos, a Seattle organization serving LGBTQ Latinos, Martinez came to Casa Latina in 2016. He replaced Hilary Stern, who founded the organization in 1994.

It had grown into a formidable force, handling thousands of job calls a year, winning a city human rights award, branching into language classes and skills training.

In 2019, Casa Latina had roughly $2.2 million in revenue, nearly $900,000 of it from government grants and hundreds of thousands more in donations. In 2018, after the City Council passed a domestic workers ordinance, providing protections such as meal breaks and a minimum wage guarantee, Mayor Jenny Durkan went to Casa Latina to sign it into law.

Some current and former workers, though, say they have long been unhappy with leadership, citing issues such as perceived favoritism in dispatching jobs, imperious behavior by leaders, and an expectation of overtime work. Last year, Casa Latina agreed to a roughly $8,300 settlement with the Seattle Office of Labor Standards after an allegation that the organization pressured employees to volunteer at events and effectively work off the clock.

Dissatisfaction reached a boiling point as talk spread about how the nonprofit was dealing with Carrillo’s allegations.

Carrillo, 48, said she had endured at least a year of harassment from her co-worker. He coordinated drivers like her and so had authority over her, she said. He was also seen to be in a position of power because of a personal relationship with one of the organization’s leaders, according to her and others.

In March 2020, Carrillo said, he touched her breast. “I’m in shock,” she said, recalling the incident.

She said she told him repeatedly to stop harassing her, and complained to her immediate supervisor, who also told him to stop. Then came the incident she described in the request for a restraining order. This past March, she said, he gave her a credit card to put gas in a van. It dropped to the floor, and as she bent over to pick it up, Carrillo said, he rubbed her backside. A day laborer, Sergio Ochoa, said he saw it happen. “Why you do this?” he said he asked.

Soon after, Carrillo said, she filed a human-resources complaint, which prompted an internal investigation.

Martinez, who is one of three people who conducts such investigations, said in his statement that “when the first complaint was filed, offices were quietly reorganized so that the person who filed the complaint would not have to be in the same building as the person they filed a complaint against during the investigation.”

Carrillo says that despite great distress, managers did not move her desk away from his for a month and she had to separate herself as best she could.

The man she accused eventually was disciplined but not at that time fired, according to her and another statement from Martinez, though the executive director said the staffer did not physically return to Casa Latina.

After a group of workers and activists held a protest in early May, covered by KING 5, two other women came forward to say they had been subjected to sexual harassment from the man, mostly verbal.

He also touched men in ways they didn’t like, on their ears or cheeks or knocking off a hat, said two day laborers at a May 22 protest. They portrayed the behavior as disrespectful, rather than sexual, although one of the men described the ex-staffer thrusting his hips as he passed by a male worker.

A petition was circulating at the protest signed by about 75 people, calling for the resignation of Casa Latina’s leaders.

Some people also wrote letters to the board. One, Alej Gallardo, who worked as an organizer for Casa Latina several years ago to mobilize support for the domestic workers ordinance, wrote about reporting an alleged rape to a supervisor, involving two people who came to the organization for job referral, and getting what Gallardo considered a dismissive response.

In June 2017, Gallardo had reached out to a woman who had previously gotten domestic jobs through Casa Latina, and was outspoken on problems she saw. In 2015, the woman said, she had been raped by a day laborer.

The woman told The Seattle Times she had gone out to eat a couple times with the day laborer and, while house sitting, invited him over for a Sunday midday meal. After she drank a beer he brought, the woman said, she passed out and didn’t wake up until the next morning, naked, with bruises all over her body, and the man lying next to her.

“I was destroyed,” the woman said.

Disturbed by the incident and that the woman hadn’t gone to police, Gallardo talked in the board letter and in an interview with The Seattle Times of reporting the alleged rape in 2017 to Casa Latina’s community programs director, Veronique Facchinelli.

“Who else did you tell about this?” Gallardo said Facchinelli asked, adding that the organizer shouldn’t be talking about the alleged incident. “This is not what you were hired for,” Gallardo said Facchinelli scolded.

Reached by The Seattle Times, Facchinelli said she was surprised by that account. She didn’t say whether she knew about the alleged rape or had a conversation with Gallardo about it, but said anyone talked to “would have never said something like that. This is not something we would have taken lightly for sure.”

At Gallardo’s urging, the woman who said she was raped went to police. Gallardo accompanied her. It was then 2018, and the time lapse may account for why police said they couldn’t gather evidence.

In 2020, she said, she told Martinez. She was dissatisfied with his response, in part, she said, because he didn’t ask who the alleged rapist was.

Casa Latina’s communications director, Jessica Nieves, said that when the case was reported to Casa Latina in 2020, the accused rapist no longer got work through the organization. Nieves said she didn’t know when he stopped coming to Casa Latina, and had no information about a conversation between Gallardo and Facchinelli three years before.

Martinez, in one of his statements this month, said he had been attending meetings to listen to worker concerns and was committed to addressing them. The board, according to its statement, plans to hire people to investigate in the first week of June and expects findings within 30 days of them coming on board.

Protesters, meanwhile, say they will gather again June 4.

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