A high volume of sexual harassment charges has prompted the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to launch a broad investigation into the possibility of an abusive environment at the Daimler Chrysler Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.
(Photo: Madalyn Ruggiero / AP)
Toledo - Melody Williams, after working an overtime shift, was called to her boss' office, where she found him lying on a desk.
"You want to get paid?" she testified that supervisor Torrence Frazier asked her. He pawed at her; pressed his body against hers. "We can just go next door, get this over with," he told her.
And that's how it went - giving in to his demands, against her will - for several months, she testified.
Chrysler's Toledo North Assembly Plant was a "living hell" that drove Williams, one of several workers to file complaints about the plant, to a psychiatric unit and near bankruptcy, her lawyer alleges.
Chrysler denied wrongdoing in court records, but the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission believed Williams' claims of sexual harassment. Chrysler "has failed in its obligations under federal law to maintain a work environment free of unlawful harassment," says an EEOC report obtained by the Free Press.
Williams' accusations are part of what workplace experts and investigators term an extraordinarily high number of sexual harassment and discrimination allegations against Chrysler and the UAW at the Toledo complex.
The high volume of charges has prompted the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to launch a broad investigation into the possibility of an abusive environment at the Jeep complex, the Free Press has learned.
In the past four years, nine federal lawsuits have been filed in Toledo against Chrysler regarding sexual harassment at the Jeep plant. Seventy-three charges of civil rights violations have been filed with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, with more than 40 coming within the past 18 months, records show.
The 45 civil rights complaints in the last 18 months is more than five times the number of charges leveled against General Motors Corp.'s comparably sized operations in and around Toledo.
Some of the Jeep plant cases highlight Chrysler's requirement that job applicants waive the full amount of time they have under the law to file a legal claim, a provision allowed by the courts that one Michigan judge has called "unconscionable."
Two Named in Many Lawsuits
The lawsuits and claims together portray an assembly plant where certain supervisors and union leaders used their power to demand sex from female workers in exchange for letting the women keep their jobs or favorable assignments. Workers say UAW and company officials turned a blind eye - and a federal judge and investigators have affirmed that officials failed to protect employees.
In court records, the automaker and union local have denied wrongdoing.
Officials from UAW Local 12, which represents workers at the plant, did not respond to questions for this report, and the local's Toledo lawyer declined to comment.
Mike Palese, a Chrysler spokesman, said the automaker is unable to talk about individual claims because of pending legal actions.
"Chrysler has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind in any of its facilities and offices around the world," Palese said. "We communicate this policy to all employees. We train our employees and our supervisors. All allegations of harassment are fully investigated, and violations of the policy are punishable up to and including termination. This is a very strong policy."
Auto plants have dealt with sexual harassment before, but after extensive training that has been common in U.S. factories, it is rare to see so many cases at one site, experts say.
"That's not only excessive, that's dramatic," said Gerald Meyers, former chairman of American Motors, which sold Jeep-brand vehicles until the company was acquired by Chrysler. "Something is wrong" at the Toledo plant.
Several of the lawsuits name a small group of union and company officials, most prominently: union steward Richard Lott and Frazier, the supervisor named in Williams' complaint.
Court records portray them as friends who are accused in some complaints of helping each other terrorize women at the plant. Both men remain at the Chrysler Jeep operations.
Lott's lawyer declined to comment for this report, and Lott did not respond to an interview request. Chrysler declined to make Frazier available to comment for this report.
Lott is the primary antagonist in lawsuits by worker Mee Sanders, who claimed a "lack of institutional control" at the Jeep plant. "Chrysler employees, supervisors and management have run amok in an environment that breeds sexual predators," she alleged.
Sanders has seen some early success in litigation against the UAW, with a judge in May upholding a ruling against the union for discrimination and breach of its duty of fair representation. Another lawsuit by Sanders against the company is scheduled for a jury trial in November, though some of her allegations have been dismissed in part because of Chrysler's preemployment waiver requiring that claims be filed within six months.
Judge: Hostile Work Environment
U.S. District Judge David Katz ruled against the union, saying Sanders' case involved "harassment by a coworker and fellow union member without adequate protection (and even with support) from supervisors and union officials who threatened, manipulated job placements and displayed a reluctance to help, resulting in a hostile work environment."
The judge noted that neither the union nor Lott "really contest that Lott requested sexual favors in exchange for influencing her job placement."
Four of the nine lawsuits were settled within the past two years; two were dismissed. Another suit was dismissed last month, but the worker last week filed notice of plans to appeal.
Williams' lawsuit was one of those settled. In August, the automaker paid her a six-figure settlement, according to people familiar with the deal. It allowed her to get a new Mercedes and begin a new life near Phoenix.
The state commission has seen a spike in complaints about all types of harassment and discrimination at the plant. In the past 18 months, 45 charges involving a variety of civil rights issues, such as sexual harassment and race discrimination, have been filed with the commission against the plant, which employs about 4,000.
Ten charges also have been brought against UAW Local 12.
While investigations are pending into most of the 45 accusations, the agency has found reason to believe the charges - a finding known as probable cause - in five cases. The agency negotiated a deal in a sixth case before it reached a determination. Three of the charges against the UAW have been found to have probable cause.
Of the other 28 cases filed prior to the past 18 months, the majority were found to lack probable cause, according to investigators, a common ruling by the commission.
John Challenger, a human resources expert with Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago, said the number of claims at the Jeep plant could be a sign of a pervasive culture of sexual harassment. But even if the claims are false, he said it's a sign of a corrosive environment. "There's a very antagonistic culture," he said.
Cutbacks Cited as an Explanation
Palese, the Chrysler spokesman, said the plant has undergone some recent changes, such as the elimination of a third shift in February, that "may or may not" have created some disgruntled employees.
Some of the charges filed at the civil rights commission read like a plea for help.
"I keep complaining of sexual harassment and" the "company refuses to help me," Yolanda Coleman, a Jeep worker, told the Ohio commission in a complaint filed in August.
The Free Press reviewed records in several cases:
â€¢ In a finding in March supporting a sexual harassment charge brought by Jeep worker Casaundra Fletcher, an Ohio Civil Rights Commission investigator noted: "Witnesses indicate that employees of" Chrysler "are continually subjected to a sexually charged environment. This environment not only creates a hostile work environment for female employees but male employees as well."
â€¢ A lawsuit was settled in May 2007 involving Kelly Alexander, a worker who said she was disciplined by Frazier after rejecting months of his sexual advances. When she complained to union leaders and company management, Frazier became enraged, profanely vowing "to take care of you," Alexander said in court records.
â€¢ A May 2004 lawsuit by Janice Kasprzak that claimed Chrysler failed to act on complaints of sexual harassment was settled in the spring of 2006. She said Ted Stelmaszak, a team assistant, sexually harassed her, including asking her out several times, calling her home even after being told not to, touching her buttocks, and telling her that he screamed her name while masturbating.
Chrysler argued that it investigated her claims promptly. U.S. District Judge James Carr refused to dismiss claims of sexual harassment. He did dismiss claims of retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"The conduct Kasprzak alleges goes beyond simple teasing, offhand comments and isolated incidents. She has presented evidence that Stelmaszak repeatedly engaged in unwelcome sexually suggestive conduct," the judge wrote.
â€¢ The lawsuit settled last fall involving Williams said that Frazier, then an area manager at Toledo North, told her to get an abortion and then demoted her to a less desirable job after she refused and told people he was the father of the baby. (She eventually had a miscarriage.) She had been in a consensual relationship with Frazier, records say, but it ended after he told her to get an abortion. After that, Frazier is accused of demanding sex in exchange for payment for overtime worked.
The automaker said her claims against the company were not supported by evidence, noting overtime calculations are controlled by computers, not supervisors. The company also attacked her credibility and character, noting her violent marriage, attempted suicide and troubled teenage daughter. Williams, Chrysler lawyers argued, "is a troubled individual whose many problems have nothing to do with Mr. Frazier."
The EEOC believed her accusations of sexual harassment and retaliation. "The evidence obtained during the investigation reveals that" Williams "was subjected to unlawful sexual harassment and retaliated against in violation of Title VII. The evidence further reveals that Mr. Frazier has also subjected other women to unwelcome advances, which created a hostile work environment."
People familiar with Williams' case say she received the six-figure settlement. But the other lawsuits, including one filed by Valerie Jaques that was settled while she was appealing a judge's decision to dismiss the suit, were settled for much less.
Palese, the Chrysler spokesman, said settlements such as Williams' are confidential.
"Settlement is not an admission of liability by anybody," Palese said. "Often the parties will settle in order to avoid the future costs of litigation."