Feds sue Strib for alleged sexual harassment; working in the ‘male room?’

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against the Star Tribune, alleging three years of sexual harassment at the paper’s printing plant.

According to EEOC litigator Laurie Vasichek, since August 2005, two female employees at the Strib’s Heritage printing plant were “subject to sexist slurs, being sworn at, and having sex-based comments made to them. Co-workers would tell them to put up with it because they were working in the ‘male room.'”

Vasichek says up to 75 female mailroom workers could be in the affected class; the agency has identified one additional worker so far. Vasichek adds that says the allegations do not involve physical contact. The EEOC complaint is here.

Star Tribune spokesperson Ben Taylor did not immediately return requests for comment. However, a memo from Human Resources Vice President Helen Wainwright says, “The company strongly disagrees with the allegations that sexual harassment occurred in the mailroom.”

The EEOC disagreed after conducting an investigation. It’s rare that a complaint results in a lawsuit; nationally, the agency brings 350-400 cases a year out of more than 75,000 cases filed, Vasichek says.

“The EEOC is suing on behalf of the U.S. public. We bring [cases] because we believe that the allegations are true,” she explains.

Still, Vasichek praises the Strib’s dealings with her office, and notes ongoing settlement negotiations mean the case may never come to trial.

“I can say the Star Tribune has been very good to work with,” she says. “We’re very pleased how they’ve addressed the concerns the EEOC has brought up.”

The cash-strapped Strib — which reportedly spent $10 million last year to settle the Par Ridder case — has ample reason not to take this incident to trial.

In her memo, Wainwright notes that “litigation is expensive, time-consuming and disruptive and by pursuing a settlement, we seek to resolve the matter quickly without significant disruption to employees or to our efficient production of the newspaper.”

Wainwright’s memo says the Strib took action as soon as the women’s complaints emerged.

Even though the paper believes no “unlawful harassment” took place, she wrote that management immediately “took steps to reinforce the Star Tribune’s strong commitment to a respectful work environment, including implementing training programs for Heritage employees and their supervisors.”

Wainwright notes the Strib “has consistently made efforts — well before charges were filed with the EEOC — to ensure that our workplace environment is free from unlawful harassment.”

Vasichek says that before the suit was filed, private conciliation between the agency, the paper and the women failed. She would not comment on why those negotiations failed in this case. Generally speaking, she adds, cases break down because the EEOC asks for things the employer can’t give, or individuals ask for more than can receive, or the personality conflict is too great.

The EEOC action does not prevent the women from filing a civil suit. Their private attorney did not return calls for comment.

Here’s Wainwright’s memo:

You will be seeing media reports that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit against the Star Tribune. I want to give you the background on this situation and explain how we are dealing with it.

In 2006, the EEOC began investigating allegations that employees of the Star Tribune sexually harassed certain female Mailroom employees. For some time now, the EEOC has threatened to file a lawsuit against the Star Tribune based on those sexual harassment allegations.

When we learned of the allegations, we took them very seriously. We promptly and thoroughly investigated them, and concluded that no unlawful harassment had occurred. At the same time, we also took steps to reinforce the Star Tribune’s strong commitment to a respectful work environment, including implementing training programs for Heritage employees and their supervisors.

The company strongly disagrees with the allegations that sexual harassment occurred in the Mailroom. The Star Tribune values its workforce and has consistently made efforts — well before charges were filed with the EEOC — to ensure that our workplace environment is free from unlawful harassment.

While we believe we could prevail in this case, we have told the EEOC that we want to avoid the disruption of a lawsuit and have been trying to resolve the case through settlement negotiations. The lawsuit still will be filed, but our objective is to have a settlement also filed with the court very quickly.

Litigation is expensive, time-consuming and disruptive. Trying the case could take years and would require that employees would have to devote thousands of hours of time to interviews, depositions and document collection. By pursuing a settlement, we seek to resolve the matter quickly without significant disruption to employees or to our efficient production of the newspaper.

We are proud of our longstanding commitment to a workplace free from any illegal discrimination or harassment. Your Employee Handbook spells out in detail our inappropriate behavior/anti-harassment policy, which encourages employees to report harassing and other inappropriate behavior to your manager and/or Human Resources generalist and forbids any form of retaliation. In the printed version of the handbook, go to page 8, or you can go to online to Stribnet, click on “Employee Handbook” in the upper left corner, and then click “Standards and Compliance.”

If you have any questions about the policy, please contact your Human Resources generalist.

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