Female Sales Associate Target of Sexting, and Her Supervisor Fired For Reporting Harassment, EEOC Charges
SEATTLE — National retail chain Fry's Electronics violated federal laws by failing to take action against the sexual harassment of a young female employee and retaliating against her supervisor after he spoke out on her behalf, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed today.
According to the EEOC, the assistant manager of Fry’s Renton, Wash., store began to sexually harass sales associate America Rios in early 2007. Even though Rios was under 21 years old at the time and had repeatedly refused his advances, the harasser continually sent her sexually charged text messages with invitations to his house and offers of alcohol.
“This was my first job,” said Rios. “I was overwhelmed, uncomfortable, stressed out, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to let it go, but I felt violated and didn’t know how to pretend that nothing happened.”
Rios reported the harassment to her immediate supervisor, Ka Lam. When Lam spoke to upper management on her behalf, he was told to focus on his job and that some “changes might be happening.” However, shortly thereafter, Lam was fired for poor performance, even though the EEOC found that he had never received a bad review and had consistently been promoted during his four years with the company.
“I worked hard for this company, and tried to do what was right by standing up for Ms. Rios,” said Lam. “Firing me for speaking out was wrong.”
Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it violate Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964. After first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement through conciliation, the EEOC filed the lawsuit (EEOC v. Fry's Electronics CV-10-1562) in U.S. District Court for the District of Washington, and seeks monetary damages on behalf of Lam and Rios, training on anti-discrimination laws, posting of notices at the work site and other injunctive relief.
“While technology can put a new spin on how harassment manifests, the responsibility of employers to take harassment seriously is not new,” said Luis Lucero, director for the EEOC’s Seattle Field Office overseeing the case. “Text messages, instant messaging, and social networking certainly contribute to the blurring of formal lines of communication. However, the law holds employers liable for the actions of their supervisors and managers, so training them to prevent and redress harassment, no matter what the medium, is critical.”
EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo added, “Mr. Lam rightfully spoke up to protect an employee under his supervision from unlawful harassment, which is the legal duty of any manager. Fry’s should have been grateful that Mr. Lam was doing his job to protect them from liability, but instead they made things worse by firing him. All workers have the right to report discrimination, and the EEOC will vigorously defend that right.”
According to the company’s website, www.Frys.com, the chain of retail stores specializes in software, consumer electronics, computer hardware and household appliances and the company employs over 14,000 individuals in 34 stores located throughout the U.S.
The EEOC enforces federal laws in prohibiting employment discrimination. Additional information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.