About Sexual Harassment, Hispanic Female Workers Say #MeToo

Construction worker Guadalupe Aguirre (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Sexual harassment gained media visibility in the last few months after the emergence of a number of scandals in Hollywood’s highest spheres, but workers such as Mexican-born Guadalupe Aguirre say that harassment is an everyday problem, particularly in the construction industry, where most of her co-workers and employers are men.

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“I want to lend my face and voice to women suffering in silence from sexual harassment,” said Aguirre, 25. “Years may go by before someone reports it. Saying ‘enough’ means losing your job. It is not easy for a mother or an undocumented immigrant.”

Guadalupe said that, four years ago, one of her employers promised her better pay if she agreed to his sexual propositions. Saying no was not enough to stop the harassment, which only worsened with worker abuse.

“You would make more money if you were nice to me.” “If you want to earn more, come find me, showered and groomed.” These are some of the phrases Aguirre’s employer told her, to which she had to add tolerating crass comments from her co-workers and foremen.

“They used sexual harassment to intimidate me. It was a way to exert control over me. I was not treated as a person. They made me feel as if I was just another tool,” said Aguirre.

Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), said that the organization implemented classes to teach people how to report sexual harassment at the workplace, especially as more women started to join the construction industry.

“The classes have also been useful for the men. Sexual harassment is normalized in our countries, and some people believe that it is a harmless practice and that it has no emotional impact on the victims,” said Guallpa.

A notable case in the construction industry is Valerie Martínez v. Joseph Musso Home Improvement, a sexual harassment complaint which was investigated by the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The developer’s owner ended up disbursing $56,448, including $22,277 in stolen wages and $4,170 in compensation for damages, $12,000 for the emotional damage caused to the victim and $18,000 in civil penalties.

On Aug. 2, 2013, Martínez met with Joseph Musso, owner of the company, to collect her paycheck. When she left, her employer sent her a text message saying: “Why don’t you look that good when you come to work?” to which she replied: “That is inappropriate. Let’s keep this professional.”

Musso fired Martínez, telling her: “Now u don’t have 2 worry about being uncomfortable anymore”.

According to the commission, Musso did not cooperate with the investigation, and failed to appear in court three times during the trial. This led to the agency deciding to impose penalties on him on Sept. 29. In addition, he was required to establish anti-sexual harassment policies in his company.

Harassment is common in restaurants

The restaurant industry is another sector in which sexual harassment is a “monster” with which waitresses and cooks must deal.

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One of these places is the Princess Diner, in Southampton, Long Island. The victims, most of them Hispanic immigrants, filed a lawsuit claiming wage theft, threats and sexual harassment spanning a number of years. In September, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the arrest of owner Richard Bivona and manager John Kalogeras.

“It is devastating to know that women who are contributing to our economy with their work routinely had to withstand sexual harassment, wage theft and other discriminatory conditions in the workplace at Princess Diner,” said Anita Halasz, executive director of Long Island Jobs with Justice, a human rights and economic justice organization.

Still, John Carman, Bivona’s lawyer, stated that his client has only owned the business since April 2017 and that he has no connection to the claims of his 13 employees. For his part, Kalogeras’ attorney, Robert Schalk, said that his client is just an employee and that he categorically denies any harassment accusations, whether sexual or of any other nature.

The reality of the female employees at Princess Diner is the same suffered by hundreds of workers of the restaurant industry in New York City and across the nation.

“For years I have dealt with sexual harassment coming from employers, managers and customers. Smiling and being courteous does not mean that I welcome harassment. Courtesy is part of my job,” said Noemí, a 26-year-old Ecuadorean waitress who works at a restaurant in Corona, Queens. “An employer tried to touch me once. I hated that he thought I was his property. He treated the waitresses as if they were a piece of meat, as if we were part of his menu.”

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Lawsuits on the rise in NYC

The New York City Commission on Human Rights is currently investigating 123 sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints, of which 85 percent (105 cases) occurred at the workplace. Cases of sexual harassment represent 40 percent of all gender discrimination claims the commission is processing at the moment. That is 123 complaints of sexual harassment from a total of 340 cases of discrimination by gender.

Sexual harassment complaints, which fall under the category of gender discrimination, have increased nearly 50 percent in the city in the last two years, with 109 complaints filed in 2016/15 in contrast with the 73 filed in 2014/13.

“No one has permission to harass another person because of their gender, regardless of how much money or power they have […],” said Seth Hoy, spokesman for the Commission.

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The Commission will carry out a public hearing on Wednesday in which victims will be able to testify in a safe environment about the sexual harassment they have experienced. The cases will help build a report which will provide recommendations on how to protect oneself from harassment and how to document a claim.

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