Several male supervisors at a Verizon-contracted warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee, groped, sexually propositioned and harassed eight current and former female employees, according to charges the women filed last month at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that handles civil rights employment cases.
One woman says her boss at the fulfillment center, where workers pack and ship Verizon products, came by to offer her a peppermint, dropped it in her hand, then reached down and grabbed her breast.
Another woman’s boss grabbed her buttocks while he was walking by with a colleague, according to her complaint. After she reported the incident to the human resources department, her boss treated her more “harshly,” and wrote her up for not working ― falsely, she says in the complaint. She quit in January.
Filed in two batches at the EEOC in early and late April, the charges show what pervasive, systemic sexual harassment looks like for low-wage workers of color ― the warehouse workers are primarily African American ― who are often an afterthought in the recent spate of Me Too stories, which tend to focus on high-profile men and more elite, typically white, women.
While the first batch of charges got some local press attention, the discrimination claims filed in late April have not been previously reported.
In this case, the discrimination charges were not filed against Verizon nor do they involve the company’s employees. Instead, workers have filed their claims against their direct employer, XPO Logistics, a multibillion-dollar global firm that owns the warehouse and contracts with Verizon.
“These eight women are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more. Everybody in there is being mistreated and overworked.”
On Wednesday, ahead of Verizon’s shareholder meeting, the National Women’s Law Center, a women’s economic rights nonprofit, and four other groups sent a letter to Verizon CEO and chairman Lowell McAdam, urging him to address complaints of sexual harassment at the Memphis facility.
Other signers include the women’s nonprofit A Better Balance, the Tennessee branch of the NAACP and SisterReach, a women’s rights nonprofit that is focused of women of color in the South. The president of SAG-AFTRA, a union that represents actors, singers and other entertainers, also signed on.
“The XPO warehouse reportedly exhibits a toxic culture that runs contrary to Verizon’s stated policies and practices,” says the letter, provided exclusively to HuffPost on Tuesday. The letter notes that McAdam has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights. The CEO recently proclaimed a zero tolerance policy for harassment at Makers, a women’s conference run by Verizon-owned Oath. (Oath is also HuffPost’s parent company.)
“As community leaders, and women’s rights advocates engaged in legal and policy work to fight against sexual harassment and active in the Times Up and MeToo campaigns and movements, we are deeply concerned with how Verizon ensures safe and dignified working conditions for the workers in its supply chain,” the letter says.
The writers ask for a meeting with Verizon to further discuss the situation.
HuffPost alerted Verizon to the letter on Tuesday night. The company said this was the first it heard about the situation in Memphis.
“We are undertaking an immediate investigation into the matter,” Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni told HuffPost on Wednesday, after looking at the charges.
Later that day, lawyers from both companies met to discuss the allegations, according to a letter sent to XPO from Verizon, broadly outlining their discussion and next steps.
“These are very disturbing and serious allegations,” Verizon’s attorneys write. “Verizon expects XPO Logistics to utilize all measures available to fully investigate the charges and take prompt and decisive remedial action if the facts warrant it.”
Verizon also said that it expects frequent updates on the investigation and that it will monitor XPOs actions. The updates and investigation will “inform the basis of any decisions Verizon makes regarding the future of our contractual relationship with XPO.”
The letter was addressed to two XPO executives, including in-house lawyer Richard Valitutto. According to the harassment charges, Valitutto was also employed by the warehouse’s previous owners, New Breed Logistics, when it was sued for sexual harassment in 2010. The company lost that case, and a judge ordered the warehouse to closely monitor for sexual harassment issues.
It’s not clear what happened after that.
A spokesman for XPO declined to comment on the specifics of the claims but said that the company had only reviewed the charges filed in early April and had not yet seen the late April filings.
“Our culture promotes safety and respect. We have no tolerance for any form of harassment,” an XPO spokesman told HuffPost. “We promptly investigate all claims brought to our attention.”
The charges raise questions about the responsibilities big companies have in dealing with the behavior of their contractors. It’s a struggle that’s somewhat analogous to what happens in the retail industry, where big labels outsource manufacturing overseas.
Other tech firms, including Facebook, do hold their contractors to various standards ― including minimum wages and benefits requirements. Many, including Verizon, say they have zero tolerance for harassment at any firm they do business with.
Those kind of policies will increasingly be put to the test as the Me Too movement matures. It’s possible that the next phase will spread to these fairly common arrangements, where big-name companies outsource labor needs to U.S. companies with a far lower profile.
“Part of this moment demands greater accountability for preventing and addressing workplace harassment,” said Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, which has signed on to the letter.
Companies like Verizon should pay attention not only to the treatment of their own workers but also to those who fall under their corporate umbrella, she said. They have a lot of power to make change.
“Verizon has a really important voice around the conversation they should use that power to stand up for the workers who are trying to seek justice,” said Martin, who also oversees some legal work for Time’s Up, the anti-harassment initiative created by women in Hollywood in the wake of the Me Too movement.
The women who filed these claims are hourly workers who don’t earn a lot of money, and many are the sole breadwinners for their family, grateful for the hourly work and full-time benefits, despite the hazards of the job, said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the NAACP in Tennessee, which signed the letter.
The racial aspects of the harassment allegations are hard to miss, as the female workers at the plant are mainly African American and their supervisors’ mostly white men, according to the letter from the groups.
One woman alleging discrimination said her supervisor regularly made sexual comments to the women who worked under him, calling one his “chocolate baby.”
“They’re getting the same kind of racist pathetic treatment that people in the South got for generations,” said Sweet-Love, who noted she’s met with many workers inside the XPO facility, where employees are often working long and inconsistent hours, desperate to hang on to the full-time work that comes with benefits ― a rarity for low-wage workers in Memphis.
“These eight women are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more. Everybody in there is being mistreated and overworked,” she said.
The facility’s previous owner, New Breed Logistics, was sued by the EEOC in 2010 for harassment and retaliation involving three female temp workers in Memphis. A jury found in favor of the victims, with a $1.5 million judgment. A federal judge ordered the company to monitor complaints and issues going forward. However, while the case was on appeal, XPO bought the facility. Verizon contracted with New Breed, as well.
According to the lawyer who filed the current crop of charges, XPO continues to employ executives who were there when the last suit was filed, including its human resources director and corporate counsel Valitutto.
This article has been updated with details of Verizon’s letter to XPO.
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