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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 25, 2013, 2:40 pm

Task Force Probes Sexual Harassment in Byzantine Warehouse Sector

BY Matthew Blake

Female warehouse workers are vulnerable to sexual harassment due to lack of accountability in the sector. (Seth Lemmons//Creative Commons)  

The Chicago-based workers center Warehouse Workers For Justice has formed a task force to investigate sexual harassment and gender discrimination in goods warehouses in southwest suburban Chicago.

According to Warehouse Workers For Justice spokesperson Leah Fried, the task force grew out of a bitter and unusual legal dispute between Priscilla Marshall, 21, and Partners Warehouse of Elwood, Ill. 

The small town of Elwood lies southwest of Chicago in Will County, a hub for the warehouse industry. In 2010, when Marshall was 18, she told the Elwood police that her boss at Partners had sexually harassed her, including telling her that she must have sex with him in order to keep her job. The company’s response was to accuse Marshall of theft and of filing a false police report. Will County police then arrested Marshall, along with workers who corroborated her story.

While Marshall was awaiting trial, Warehouse Workers For Justice intervened on her behalf, filing a sexual harassment suit against Partners in November of 2011. In March of this year, the criminal charges against Marshall and the witnesses were dropped. Partners also agreed to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit initiated by Warehouse Workers for Justice.

The details of the settlement have not been disclosed. Fried said only that Marshall and the witnesses “won a significant settlement for the nightmare that they went through.” Partners did not return Working In These Times’ requests for comment.

But the story doesn’t end there. In researching Marshall’s case, Warehouse Workers for Justice surveyed 53 women at Will County warehouses in 2012 and found that 27 claimed to be victims of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. The women reported such treatment as “rude jokes, nasty comments and getting asked out a lot” by their bosses, according to Fried. They also described not getting the same consistent work shifts as men. A few said they’d been fired for leaving work to take care of children.

“We found a lot of anecdotal evidence" of harassment and discrimination, Fried says. She attributes this to an industry that relies on temp workers and has little employer accountability, with responsibility for worker safety floating between retailers, contractors and subcontractors.

Wal-Mart's largest warehouse, for example, is located in Will County and operated by Schneider National, Inc., a company headquartered in Green Bay, Wis. Partners, based in Aurora, Ill., is another example of a contractor that works as a middleman. Its Elwood warehouse serves Jewel-Osco, a Midwestern-based grocery chain.  

A large logistics company such as Schneider will, in turn, often subcontract the actual warehouse labor—the intensive physical work of unloading and loading trucks and stacking boxes—to temporary staffing agencies.

The challenge of the task force is taking a systemic look at an industry that includes more than a dozen employers, including retailers contractors, and subcontractors, and roughly 30,000 Will County employees--the majority of whom are temp workers and may opt to leave these often undesirable job after a couple of weeks. According to a 2010 report [PDF] by the Warehouse Workers for Justice and the University of Illinois-Chicago, 63 percent of Will County warehouse workers are temps and about 25 percent are women.  

Perhaps crucially, Warehouse Workers for Justice successfully recruited members of the Will County Board and the City Council of Joliet, the biggest city in the county, to sit on the task force. These elected officials will appear at fact-finding sessions this summer and work through the fall to determine the extent of gender discrimination and harassment.  

The task force arrives amid growing scrutiny for Wal-Mart and Schneider. Both companies are defendants in a class action lawsuit filed by Warehouse Workers United, a group that advocates for warehouse employees in California’s Inland Empire. That suit alleges widespread wage theft in a Wal-Mart-owned and Schneider-operated Inland Empire warehouse.

In response to this legal action, as well as public protests in both California and Illinois, Wal-Mart took the step in December of installing a monitoring program for third-party supply warehouse contractors. The program is intended to generally monitor contractor behavior, including sexual harassment or gender discrimination that violates state and federal labor laws.

However, Fried and Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers United, both say that Wal-Mart’s initiative has so far changed nothing in the warehouses. Wal-Mart did not return a request for comment. 

In response to emailed questions about the task force, Schneider National spokesperson Janet Bonkowski noted that there are no current sexual harassment cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pertaining to the Will County warehouse. Bonkowski added, “Schneider requires current and new associates to go through sexual harassment training, and that includes those associates we employ in Illinois.”

The task force’s first fact-finding session is scheduled for July 10. Denise Winfrey, a Will County board member who will sit on the task force, said that the fact-finding session is intended to “encourage workers to come in and share their stories.” Many of these workers are not aware of their rights, Winfrey says.

Should the task force find evidence of endemic harassment and discrimination, Winfrey says, the next step would be policy recommendations for the county or state, or possible prosecution from the Will County states attorney.

“If it turns out that sexual harassment is not widespread, then obviously we will disband the task force,” Winfrey says. “But my sense is that’s not the case.” 

Matthew Blake is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He has written for the Chicago Journal, Washington Monthly, Washington Independent and The Nation, among other publications.

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