Arbutus woman sues Howard County, claiming sex harassment

July 22, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

An Arbutus woman claims in a federal lawsuit that her co-workers and a supervisor at the Howard County Department of Public Works sexually harassed her between 1988 and 1991.

Brenda Gail Collins, 39, is seeking $750,000 in damages from the county in a complaint she filed under the federal Civil Rights Act in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on July 11.

Ms. Collins, who now works as an aide at a nursing home, wants the court to order the county to give her back pay and a job at another department. She earned about $22,500 a year at the time she was fired in August 1993.

The suit alleges, among other things, that Ms. Collins' co-workers grabbed her, made suggestive gestures, and played a pornographic film while she was present.

"She doesn't want to go back to that same environment," said Isaac Joe Jr., a Columbia attorney for Ms. Collins. "[County officials] need to be much more aggressive in terms of preventing sexual harassment and sexual discrimination."

To improve the working environment for women, Ms. Collins is asking the court to order the county to start a program that provides employment opportunities for women.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker declined to comment on Ms. Collins' allegations, saying that the county has not yet received a copy of the suit. He noted, however, that the county already has a program aimed at preventing sexual harassment and discrimination.

"We don't condone, we don't allow any discrimination based on race, sex or whatever," Mr. Ecker said.

Ms. Collins was the only female utility worker at the Public Works Department's Bureau of Highways at the time of the alleged incidents, the suit says. Another woman worked in the bureau as a secretary.

Ms. Collins, hired by the county in 1985, began having problems with her co-workers when she was transferred in 1988, Mr. Joe said. The incidents started when she became a utility worker, whose duties included trimming trees, filling potholes and clearing ditches.

She alleges that she was subjected to an intimidating, hostile working environment that harmed her psychological well-being and her ability to do her job.

Mr. Joe said that about a half-dozen men were involved in the incidents. The attorney said he did not list the men as defendants in the suit because the county is responsible for their actions.

The suit alleges a co-worker exposed himself to her and another co-worker played a pornographic film on a projector owned by the county.

Ms. Collins asserts in the suit that her supervisor told her she could avoid being laid off by wearing a low-cut blouse. In addition, a co-worker told her she would be fired if she complained of the incidents.

Ms. Collins says in the suit that she reported the incidents to supervisors, but that the complaints were ignored. She requested a transfer in April 1991 and was transferred to the county's wastewater treatment plant, the suit says.

"Though she was transferred, she was given a job she was destined to fail in and for which she was much more severely scrutinized than were the other employees in the department," the suit says.

Mr. Joe said that Ms. Collins was given light duties after injuring her back while moving a 200-pound pump. The county later fired her because her injury prevented her from fulfilling the duties of a utility worker, he said.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission investigated her allegations and in April granted her a notice of right to sue, according to the suit.

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