Companies Pay $1 Million in Harassment Suit

By: Steven Greenhouse
New York Times

W.R. Grace & Company said yesterday that it would pay $850,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged managers at a Maryland food-processing plant with egregious sexual harassment of 22 female workers from Central America.

The commission said four plant managers and two nonsupervisors had engaged in systemic harassment that included exposing themselves, demanding oral sex and touching workers' breasts, buttocks, and genital areas. Commission officials said that the harassment had lasted four years and that there had been one case of rape.

"This stuff was pretty bad, and it seemed to be pervasive, all over this large plant," said Regina Andrew, one of the lawyers at the commission's Baltimore office who handled what became a class-action lawsuit. "This was one of the worst sexual harassment cases we've seen."

The commission said numerous women at the plant in Laurel, Md., were given menial or difficult work assignments after they rejected the managers' sexual demands.

Commission officials said that two pregnant women who rebuffed advances were subsequently fired and that managers would often drive female workers home late at night, after the buses had stopped running and would then expose themselves or pressure the women for sex.

"This case sends a clear message that wholesale violations of the civil rights of the most vulnerable work force - immigrant women in low wage jobs - will not be tolerated," said Ida L. Castro, chairwoman of the commission.

In a news release, Grace noted that it sold the plant in March 1996, a month before four workers first complained to the commission. The company said none of the accusations involved any member of Grace's management or any current employee.

"We are settling this case because we think it is in the best interests of our employees and our shareholders to put this matter behind us," the company said. "Grace had in place a very strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment."

In March 1996, Grace, which is based in Columbia, Md, sold the plant to the Townsends Inc., which operated the plant until it was closed in April. The plant made a wide variety of processed foods including soup, cheesecake and poultry dishes.

As part of the settlement announced yesterday, Townsends, which is based in Wilmington, Del., agreed to pay $150,000.

Barry Willoughby, a lawyer for Townsneds, said that even though the harassment was before Townsends bought the plant, Townsends dismissed two managers and demoted two other workers after investigating the matter. He said Townsends also posted sexual harassment policies in English and Spanish.

Mr. Willoughby said Townsends agreed to pay 15 percent of the overall liability. Commission officials said that after the first four women lodged a complaint in April of 1996 investigators found that the problem was far more widespread, prompting the commission to bring the case as a class-action lawsuit.