Twenty-two women will share a $1 million settlement after bringing sexual harassment charges against a Laurel food-processing plant formerly owned by Columbia-based W.R. Grace & Co., the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said yesterday.
"This is the most egregious sexual-harassment case I've ever tried," said Regina Andrew, a senior trial attorney for the EEOC, who has been with the agency 10 years.
The alleged incidents, which included a rape, groping and solicitations by several managers and hourly workers, occurred over several years, beginning about 1992. Grace sold the plant to Delaware-based Townsend Inc. in March 1996. The plant closed two months ago when Townsend, a poultry company, decided to get out of the food-processing business.
Grace is paying $850,000, while Townsend will pay $150,000. Neither company admitted wrongdox ing, and both say they have and had policies in place prohibiting sexual harassment. A Grace attorney said yesterday the company settled to put the matter to rest. Townsends' attorney also said it was cheaper to settle than pay legal fees.
The case was especially troubling, the EEOC said, because the victims, all Hispanic, were particularly vulnerable: new to the counx try, unable to speak English, making low wages and unfamiliar with their rights.
One woman from Guatemala said she came to work late one day and the manager told her he wouldn't dock her pay if she agreed to give him oral sex - an offer made in lieu of intercourse because she was pregnant at the time.
She refused and walked out of the office in tears. She didn't complain to anyone, even as the propositions continued, because she was a recent widow with two children at home and she didn't want to lose her job, which paid about $5 an hour.
"I felt I had all the responsibility on my shoulders," she said yesterday through an interpreter.
Another worker, Delmy Hernandez of El Salvador who began at the plant in January 1996, said three coworkers harassed her - repeatedly demanding oral sex, making lewd comments and groping her. Her complaints to management went largely ignored, she said. One woman she complained to told her the oral sex solicitation was "a good thing."
She said the harassment gave her headaches and was always on her mind. She, too, didn't want to quit her job because she was a single mother supporting two chilx dren. Her self-esteem plummeted and she felt "like a nobody."
The women said the harassment might have continued unchecked were it not for the fact that the plant became unionized in 1996. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 brought the charges to the EEOC, which investigated the allegations and eventually filed suit in January 1998 in U.S. District Court for Maryland in Greenbelt.
The EEOC settled with Townsend in September and with Grace in April - a month before a jury trial was set to begin. Judge Alexander Williams gave preliminary approval of the settlement on May 24, and final approval is set for July, barring any complaints from the women that the settlement amount is not fair.
Each woman will receive between $25,000 and $75,000 before taxes; none of the settlement money goes to the EEOC.
Grace, the subject of the John Travolta film "A Civil Action," is no stranger to the legal system. It's currently involved in numerous lawsuits related to asbestos products. Until 1984, Grace sold insulation that contained asbestos, and several class action lawsuits have been filed by property owners who used it.
The company also came under fire after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a series of articles last year reporting that nearly 200 people died from diseases associated with a Grace vermiculite mine, which contains high levels of asbestos, in Libby, Mont. The company stopped its operations there in 1990.
For her part, Hernandez said she can't put a price on the harassment she suffered at the Laurel plant, and that she came forward so that things like this would not happen to anyone else - especially her daughter.
She said if she could she would tell other women that "in this country people are free and don't have to be afraid, and they have rights," she said. "They can speak out because there are people who will help."