Senate kitchen employees win harassment case 2 women abused by supervisor

September 28, 1993|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- In the first sexual harassment case to be resolved in the two years since Congress gave its employees the same protections that other Americans gained in 1964, two women workers in the Senate's basement kitchen have won damages and an official apology for repeated abuse by a male supervisor.

Detailing at a news conference yesterday the conduct that led to the settlement, Susan Ochoa, 30, the first female chef in the U.S. Capitol food facility, said one of her bosses threw food down her clothes, tried to look under her skirt, asked her if she was wearing underwear, bruised her by putting her on a conveyor belt and called her "bitch," "slut" and "whore."

Ms. Ochoa's co-complainant, kitchen worker Ella Bennett, 45, said the same man rubbed her posterior several times a day, pulled her dress open in the presence of other employees, grabbed her thighs and threw her head first into a trash can.

The women declined to name the supervisor publicly. Under terms of the settlement approved earlier this month by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, the size of the damage award cannot be disclosed. But the amount will be revealed in a semiannual report on Senate expenditures later this year, officials said.

The offending supervisor was placed on administrative leave last June.

Ms. Ochoa is Latina. Ms. Bennett is black. The supervisor is white. "He made a few racial remarks," the women's lawyer, Sharon Cummings, said. "But the sexual harassment side of it was so compelling that we pursued it from that angle."

Ms. Bennett said the abuse began in 1989, two years after she started work. Ms. Ochoa said the man began harassing her soon after she was hired in 1990. Both said the misconduct continued until this year, with management ignoring or slighting complaints for two years.

"The people on the Hill call us troublemakers just because we came forward," Ms. Bennett said. She said managers told her, "What happens on the job, leave it on the job."

In June 1992, the women filed a complaint under Title 3 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 "as an act of desperation," Ms. Cummings said.

Congress passed the legislation after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment controversy, during which Capitol Hill was termed "the last plantation" because its workers lacked the legal recourse others were granted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After Ms. Bennett filed her complaint, her husband, Gregory, a manager in one of the Senate's restaurants, was notified of his imminent firing over an earlier incident for which he had already been disciplined. The job threat to Ms. Bennett's husband was removed as one of the settlement terms.

In a letter of apology, Architect of the Capitol George White expressed regret that the complaints "were not more promptly and appropriately addressed" by management.

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