Underreporting Makes Sexual Violence At Work Difficult To Address

Feb 23, 2016
Originally published on February 25, 2016 3:53 pm

In a relatively rare victory for abused workers, Vail Run Resort in Colorado recently agreed to pay more than $1 million to settle a sexual harassment case. The case was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of members of the hotel's housekeeping employees.

The company failed to address attempted rapes of its housekeeping staff. As part of the settlement, the company will have a monitor for five years and will be required to do extensive sexual-harassment training of its managers.

There are no recent, reliable statistics about sexual violence at work. The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated there were more than 43,000 workplace rapes and sexual assaults a year. But anti-rape advocates say that vastly underreports the crimes, because many victims are afraid to or discouraged from coming forward.

Take, for example, Marie Billiel. She had just started college and a job as an overnight waitress when propositions from one of the cooks became more than that. "One night it escalated to him grabbing my wrist and pulling me out back into the larger prep area towards the walk-in cooler," Billiel says.

The kitchen was empty, but she managed to get away and report the incident to her manager. The reaction was not what she expected.

" 'I've got 20 applications under the register,' " she says she was told. "You know, they made it very clear that we were expendable labor."

It was during the Great Recession, and Billiel says she worried about finding another job in her western Massachusetts town.

"Even though I was upset about it, it seemed like it was less of a big deal to everybody else, so then I didn't know if it was my overreaction," she says.

This is a familiar story for Linda Seabrook, general counsel at Futures Without Violence, an advocacy group.

"Sexual assaults in general are vastly underreported, and even more so at work," she says.

Seabrook herself didn't report an incident that happened years ago, when she managed a restaurant part-time. A fellow manager pinned her in a corner late one night, pressuring her for sex. She escaped, but never reported it, a fact that seems harder to explain now because she was later a law student and knew her rights.

"I should have, but I didn't report it to upper management because I didn't want to lose my job," she says.

She was young, uncertain about workplace norms, and, like so many other women facing similar situations, she says, she needed the income.

"People who have fewer economic options are more dependent upon that job," Seabrook says.

One plaintiff in the EEOC's Vail Run Resort case is Maria Luisa Baltazar Benitez, whose supervisor repeatedly tried to rape her.

"I was doing my work, and I saw him and he already had his pants down, and then he grabbed me and he pulled down my pants, because we wore ones that were made of elastic," she says.

Benitez says as he tried to tear her underwear, she grabbed her phone. Her attacker fled as she threatened to call the police. His supervisors, she says, ignored her complaints.

Vail Run Resort did not return calls seeking comment. In a separate criminal proceeding, a jury convicted the attacker, Omar Quezada, of extortion and unlawful sexual contact.

Mary O'Neill, one of the EEOC's prosecuting attorneys, says employment law does provide protections for undocumented workers, though many are not aware of it. She says outreach efforts are leading to more sexual abuse filings.

"There are many of these cases. There's probably more than we could litigate," O'Neill says.

She says it's not just women who face workplace sexual violence. About 17 percent of cases filed with her agency involve men, who often face other hurdles.

"There's a different dynamic there, which is, people will say, 'Well, why didn't you just beat him up?' " O'Neill says.

Perpetrators, she says, almost always target multiple victims.

"One of the reasons these are not so hard to win is because you have many victims who come and tell the same story and they don't even know each other," O'Neill says.

That was the case at the Colorado resort, O'Neill says, and the employer who turned a blind eye was held responsible.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sexual violence in the workplace is difficult to address because of underreporting. But this month, some employees in Colorado won a rare victory through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission settled a case with the Vail Run Resort over allegations that the company failed to address attempted rapes of its housekeeping staff. Now the resort will have to pay more than $1 million in damages, and its managers will have to undergo extensive sexual harassment training. NPR's Yuki Noguchi spoke with a victim in that case and others who say they've been sexually assaulted at work. And a warning to our listeners that we'll hear descriptions of those assaults.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Marie Billiel had just started college and a job as an overnight waitress when propositions from one of the cooks became more than that.

MARIE BILLIEL: One night, it escalated to him grabbing my wrist and pulling me out back into, like, the larger prep area towards the walk-in cooler.

NOGUCHI: The kitchen was empty, but Billiel managed to get away and report the incident to her manager. The reaction was not what she expected.

BILLIEL: I've got 20 applications under the register. You know, they made it very clear that we were expendable labor.

NOGUCHI: It was during the Great Recession, and Billiel says she worried about finding another job in her western Massachusetts town.

BILLIEL: Even though I was upset about it, it seemed like it was less of a big deal to everybody else, so then I didn't know if it was my overreaction.

NOGUCHI: This is a familiar story for Linda Seabrook. She's general counsel at Futures Without Violence, an advocacy group.

LINDA SEABROOK: Sexual assaults in general are vastly underreported, and even more so at work.

NOGUCHI: Seabrook herself didn't report an incident that happened years ago when she managed a restaurant part-time. A fellow manager pinned her in a corner late one night, pressuring her for sex. She escaped, but never reported it, a fact that seems harder to explain now because she'd been a law student and knew her rights.

SEABROOK: I should have, but I didn't report it to upper management because I didn't want to lose my job.

NOGUCHI: She was young, uncertain about workplace norms and, like so many women facing similar situations, she said she needed the income.

SEABROOK: People who have fewer economic options are more dependent upon that job.

NOGUCHI: There are no recent reliable statistics about sexual violence at work. The most recent from the Bureau of Justice statistics five years ago estimate there were more than 43,000 workplace rapes and sexual assaults a year, a figure anti-rape advocates say underestimates the problem then and now. One plaintiff in the EEOC's Vail Run Resort case is Maria Luisa Baltazar Benitez, whose supervisor repeatedly tried to rape her.

MARIA LUISA BALTAZAR BENITEZ: (Through interpreter) I was doing my work, and I saw him and he already had his pants down. And then he grabbed me and he pulled down my pants because we wore ones that were made of elastic.

NOGUCHI: She says as he tried to tear her underwear, she grabbed her phone. Her attacker fled as she threatened to call the police. His supervisor, she says, ignored her complaints. The Vail Run Resort did not return calls seeking comment. In a separate criminal proceeding, a jury convicted the attacker, Omar Quezada, of extortion and unlawful sexual contact. Mary O'Neill is one of the EEOC's prosecuting attorneys. She says employment law does provide protections for undocumented workers, though many are not aware of it. She says outreach efforts are leading to more sexual abuse filings.

O'NEILL: There are many of these cases. There's probably more than we could litigate.

NOGUCHI: O'Neill says it's not just women who face workplace sexual violence. About 17 percent of cases filed with her agency involve men, who often face other hurdles.

O'NEILL: There's a different dynamic there, which is people will say well, why didn't you just beat them up?

NOGUCHI: Perpetrators, she says, almost always target multiple victims.

O'NEILL: One of the reasons these are not so hard to win is because you have many victims who come and tell the same story and they don't even know each other.

NOGUCHI: That was the case at the Colorado resort, O'Neill says, and the employer who turned a blind eye was held responsible. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.