When you operate a multi-ethnic company, you can’t always assume that your employees will speak enough English to understand their rights when it comes to reporting gender discrimination and sexual harassment. A recent settlement by the EEOC requiring a grocery store to perform sexual harassment training in Spanish and the requirements of the 2019 New York State Budget both show that civil rights protections don’t depend on English literacy.
In this blog post, I will describe a settlement between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Foodtown Supermarket responding to complaints of verbal and sexual harassment. I will explain how the settlement agreement included a promise to provide sexual harassment training in Spanish. And I will discuss how this mirrors a New York State law that sometimes requires training in the native language of minority workers.
Workers at Foodtown Supermarket, in Elmhurst, New York, faced a difficult decision: endure their department manager’s sexual advances, or take a risk that they would be fired for resisting them. They also faced language barriers and concerns that coming forward could put their status as immigrants at risk. However, two female workers overcame those concerns, filing complaints with the EEOC. They said they had suffered repeated, severe sexual harassment, including:
When they resisted the manager’s advances, they were fired. The EEOC investigated the employees’ complaints, and tried to settle the claim with Food Corp., the legal entity behind Foodtown. But eventually the EEOC was forced to file suit on September 30, 2018.
Negotiations didn’t stop there, though. On August 13, 2019, the EEOC announced that they had finally reached a settlement with the grocery store. They entered into a three-year consent decree, meaning the court will supervise the company’s conduct over the next several years, to be sure they live up to their promises. Those promises include:
The last aspect of this settlement is possibly the most noteworthy. It reflects the difficulty immigrants often face in understanding and exercising their rights when they don’t fully speak the language. Trainings offered solely in English can only go so far in empowering workers to stand up for their civil rights and report sexual harassment at work. EEOC New York Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein said in a statement about the settlement:
“Many employees, especially low-wage and immigrant workers, fear reporting sexual harassment. It took great courage for these women to come forward and participate in this case.”
Many immigrants are also concerned about coming forward in the current political climate. Even those who are lawfully present fear that by reporting sexual harassment their legal immigration status may come under scrutiny and they may be improperly detained or deported. Undocumented immigrants’ fears are even greater. Even though they have the same right to be free from harassment at work, many undocumented workers feel they cannot come forward or report the abuse they suffer to federal agencies for fear of being separated from their families and deported.
In those cases, it can be comforting for New York workers to know that their state’s Human Rights Law and other civil rights statutes give them even more protection than Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. In particular, the 2019 State Budget requires every New York employer to provide annual sexual harassment training to all of its employees. This training should include information on how to report abuse, employees’ rights if they have been harassed, and what they can do to help prevent future discrimination. When a company’s staff is made up of at least 10% of the same non-English-speaking minority group, the state law requires that training to be offered in a language their employees understand.
Perhaps it was the New York training requirements that made the EEOC push for sexual harassment training in Spanish as part of its settlement with Foodtown Supermarket. Or maybe it was simply a desire to protect immigrant workers from such severe forms of sexual harassment. Whatever the reason, by including bi-lingual sexual harassment training as part of their settlement, the EEOC has sent a message that immigrant workers deserve to be treated fairly at work, no matter what language they speak.
At Eisenberg & Baum, our New York City-based sexual harassment attorneys know how to protect your employment rights, without putting your immigration status at risk. If you are an immigrant worker facing sexual harassment or gender discrimination we will help you file the necessary claims at the state or federal level, and, if necessary, represent you in court. Contact us to schedule a consultation.