Task Force Probes Sexual Harassment in Byzantine Warehouse Sector

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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