Sex bias complaints soar added impetus seen with U.S. law

November 26, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Sexual harassment complaints have doubled in the last three years, and the state is bracing for even more cases with the passage of a federal law that makes them potentially more lucrative.

"Sexual harassment cases make up 10 [percent] to 20 percent of our total caseload, of formal charges and litigation, and they are growing," said Michael L. Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill exchanges before a U.S. Senate committee last month raised sex discrimination to national prominence, he said, but its importance has been clear to human rights agencies for some time.

The number of complaints has jumped in Maryland amid increased education and employer-awareness programs, Mr. Foreman said.

The commission recently filed formal charges in the following cases, alleging that:

* When Helen Dodson wanted to be a vice president of the Kensington printing firm where she had worked as a sales manager for five years, she was told that a woman would never hold the position and that the job would be too much trouble for her. Then she was fired.

* Lynda E. Winn lost her job as a Baltimore supermarket cashier after she filed criminal charges against the assistant store manager for a storeroom sexual assault.

* Betty J. Lewis complained of lewd remarks and sexual propositions from two male supervisors at the Glen Burnie beauty products firm where she was a clerk; after management refused to stop the offensive behavior, she quit her job.

Under federal and Maryland laws, plaintiffs are limited to obtaining back pay and lawyer fees, getting their job back or a wrongfully denied promotion. They can't get punitive damages against an employer or compensation for "pain and suffering."

But that will change under the new civil rights law signed by President Bush last week, which would allow suits for those larger money awards. Plaintiffs could get awards as high as $300,000, depending on the size of the company.

"More women can be expected to file sex harassment charges. . . . Private attorneys should be more willing to take these cases" because of the monetary damages available, Mr. Foreman said.

That should also prod employers to take the issue more seriously and to implement training and formal policies against sex harassment to avoid a court battle, he added.

Most complaints to the commission are made by blue-collar workers, women who are less concerned about the impact on their career advancement and who are less likely to put up with harassment, he said.

"That doesn't mean that sexual harassment is limited to those jobs," he added. For example, a recent survey of women attorneys by the National Law Journal found that 60 percent of them reported unwanted sexual advances in the office (although not necessarily sex harassment), he noted.

It occurs in government as well as in the private sector, Mr. Foreman pointed out. A federal Merit Systems Board survey in 1988 found 42 percent of female employees alleging sexual harassment, about the same percentage found in the board's 1981 survey.

"Because of the longer hours we are all working, the workplace is more and more the focal point of our social lives," Mr. Foreman explained. "Because of the close contact, friendships develop, affairs occur and sexual harassment claims will be filed."

Sex harassment at work costs employers dearly, he said. A large corporation loses an estimated $6.7 million a year on turnover, replacement costs and lost productivity, in addition to litigation expenses, he noted. Nearly one-third of major U.S. firms in 1988 reported being sued for sexual harassment.

The recent cases brought by the commission illustrate how they can involve a variety of charges.

In Ms. Dodson's case, the commission charged that Frank Gumpert Printing Co. had illegally denied her promotion and pay on the basis of sex discrimination and then fired her for complaining. While she was working there, the agency further charged, she was subjected to a hostile environment of sexual innuendo, offensive memos and unpermitted sexual touching.

"The sexist attitude of the owner. . . permeated the workplace and acted as an invitation for other members of management to engage in harassment," the commission charged.

The agency alleges that Ms. Dodson failed to receive a promised salary higher than the sales people she supervised. She was denied a vice presidency that had gone to men who held the same position, the agency said.

A vice president of the Montgomery County firm allegedly told her that a woman could never become vice president; when Ms. Dodson pressed the owner for a promotion, he told her the job would be too much trouble. After going on vacation in 1984, she was terminated.

The printing firm denied the charges and is contesting them before a hearing officer.

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