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- October 28, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 16
The Price of Saying No
Battling Sexual Harassment Takes Courage; Fighting Back—Even for the Winners—Can Be a Losing Proposition
In July 1987, one month into her job as an organizer of office space for District of Columbia employees, Patricia Kidd, then 35, presented her new boss, Melvin Carter, with a plan to computerize the department's records. Carter seemed pleased and told her, "I know I made the right decision [about you]." Seconds later, though, his compliment took an unexpected turn. "Everybody's asking me about you." she says he announced. "You can have any man you want, and I'm interested too."
Kidd was stunned. "Please, Mr. Carter," she told him, "I'd like to keep this about work." Her polite rebuff was to no avail. Carter soon began openly taunting her. When she walked through the department, she says, he made lewd gestures behind her. "When are you going to have sex with me?" he kept asking. Day after day, Kidd, a divorced single mother, awoke with a knot in her stomach. As she kissed her two boys, Christopher, now 10, and Jerry, 18, goodbye, she thought, "Maybe if I work hard and he sees how good I am at my job, he'll leave me alone." But again and again Kidd found herself pleading, "Please, Mr. Carter, let's keep this about work." In August, disgusted and dejected, Kidd went to personnel to request a job transfer. She was told that approval would have to come from Carter.
Carter refused to give it. Worse, she says, his pressure for sex turned to threats. "You know, I can get rid of you," she says he told her. As the sole support of her family, Kidd could not afford to lose her job. To buy time, her adamant "Let's keep this about work," she says, gave way to "Okay, maybe."
Carter began calling her at home, but she made excuses—the kids were sick, guests were coming—anything to keep him at bay. Then, one December morning, Kidd arrived at the office and noticed that Carter wasn't there. A couple of hours later, the phone rang. "It was Carter," she says. "He told me to get over to the Comfort Inn. I slammed down the phone, but he called back," says Kidd, choking back tears. "He said, 'Remember, I can fire you.' "
"I couldn't make any more excuses," says Kidd. "I had to survive." She walked two blocks to the motel. "I was numb," she says. Carter, then 50ish, stocky and graying, greeted her at the door in a bathrobe. He demanded she join him in the Jacuzzi—and then the bed. "It was violent," says Kidd, "and demeaning."
Kidd slept with her boss one more time. "He had sex with me and then sodomized me," says Kidd. "Afterward", she says, "I felt filthy. I swore, no matter what the consequences, I would never subject myself to that again."
When Kidd once again spurned his advances, she says, Carter "started retaliating something awful." He took away her support staff and her computer. He excluded her from meetings. He stopped assigning her work. When Kidd appealed to Carter's supervisor Robert King in May 1988, she was told to improve her attitude. Her emotional devastation took a physical toll. Her hair fell out in clumps; she developed an ulcer. "Everything was gone," says Kidd. "No one would help." She finally decided to help herself. That December, she hired a lawyer and took Carter, as well as his two supervisors, King and Raymond Lambert, to court. Carter denied he'd sexually harassed Kidd, but the jury found in her favor (Lambert and King were found to have intentionally inflicted emotional distress) and awarded her $300,000 in damages. Today, however, a year after her legal vindication, the pain—and the stigma—remain. Kidd's personal finances are depleted. She owes substantial legal fees and, until the court hashes out lengthy payment details, will receive none of the money awarded her. Though Carter retired soon after the trial, Lambert and King—who are appealing the case—remained her supervisors until recently. Even now, she cringes when Carter's friends, who still work with her, glare as she passes by. "Everyday I go in, I pray the Lord just to give me peace," says Kidd. "You just close the door and cry. Carter said he would destroy me," she adds, "and he did."
Marilyn Balamaci in Washington, D.C.
Fondled by coworkers, a waitress said, 'No more'
For three years, Jody Payne, a Boston hotel employee, endured the lewd gestures and sexual pranks of two male coworkers. They were considered fun guys, harmless cutups by most of her fellow workers. "They did everything you can imagine short of rape," says Payne, 34, whose job was to serve coffee and refreshments in the hotel's banquet hall. "But I never complained. I didn't want to be viewed as a problem."
Frequently, in what they apparently perceived as a good-natured way, one of the two would rub his groin against her in the kitchen or elsewhere. And that wasn't all. "They'd grab me and sandwich me between them and then squeeze together," says Payne. "Or they would push me into a laundry basket and jump on top of me." Despite being repeatedly rebuffed, the pair would also use Payne as the object of their sexual jokes, would walk around "flicking their tongues" and bragging about their sexual prowess in front of her and others.
Finally, in 1986, after the frustrated Payne reported the men to the Boston Hotel Workers' Union, a hearing was held, and the two were fired by management. Many of their coworkers were angry and tried unsuccessfully to get the pair rehired. For a year, few would speak to Payne. Her name was graffitied on walls, and she received hang-up calls at 3 and 4 A.M. Though the situation has since improved, Payne says she will never be the same. "Now I'm a feminist," she says. As for her tormentors, she says, "I don't feel guilty about them losing their jobs—they deserved it. I know I did the right thing.
Gayle Verner in Boston
A gas-station manager lost all she had worked for
In 1986 Donna Puckett was an assistant manager at a gas station in Savannah, Ga., when a company supervisor allegedly sexually harassed her. This year she took an executive and the company to court—and lost. It all began, she claims, when a traveling supervisor, aware of her desire to be named manager, called her asking her to meet him in his hotel to discuss the promotion. "He said he'd just had eye surgery and couldn't drive," says Puckett, 37, "so like an idiot, I went." The next thing she knew, she was in his room, looking at some papers, she says, "when suddenly I heard the room door bang closed and I turned around and he was standing there naked." He threw heron the bed, says Puckett, and ejaculated on her pants.
Distressed, she filed a complaint with the company. Seven months later she was given a station to manage, and the supervisor received a cautionary memorandum. But when company officials learned she had also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "they got so mad they called me up and cussed me out," says Puckett.
Under company pressure, Puckett dropped her claim, but soon, she says, another executive began making repeated unwanted advances. At the station, for instance, "He'd tell me how cute my rear end looked when I bent over to put oil in a car," she says. Then, he showed up at her home late one night while Puckett, a single divorced mother, and a female friend were watching TV. "When I saw one of my bosses at my door at that hour I was shocked," says Puckett. When she went to the refrigerator to get a beer, she says, "He came behind me and grabbed me on both breasts." She immediately ordered him out, but the harassment, she says, continued.
Puckett, who remarried in 1988, began suffering from painful stomach disorders and loss of hair. She again turned to the EEOC in April 1989. "They assured me I wouldn't get fired, but that's exactly what happened," says Puckett. Two weeks into a month-long medical leave, she received a letter that, citing her absence, terminated her employment. Puckett sank into depression. "I wouldn't leave the apartment, I stopped cleaning, I didn't want to talk to my friends or make love with my husband," she says.
Two years after she filed the second EEOC complaint, Puckett, who tried to hold off creditors with her earnings as a waitress, went to court. From the first, she says, the company's lawyers waged a war of emotional attrition. "They kept me in their offices [for depositions] from morning till night," she says. "One lawyer started banging on the table and calling me names."
Already intimidated, Puckett says she clammed up when she took the stand. "I was so scared my tongue was thick and my mouth stayed dry. I know I didn't come across well to the jury." Indeed, it took the jurors just 45 minutes to absolve Puckett's supervisor and the company of all harassment claims. "I thought I was going to collapse on the spot," she says. Today, a cashier at a local K mart, Puckett remains bitter. "If a girlfriend came to me and said she was going to the EEOC with a complaint," she says, "I'd say, 'It's not worth it.' "
Gail Wescott in Atlanta
For failing to stop abuse, an insurance firm must pay
In 1970, seven years after graduating from Des Moines Technical High School in Iowa, Linda Monohon joined a local reinsurance company as a secretary. Rising through the ranks, she soon became one of the few women treaty brokers in the field. In 1979, when three colleagues founded a new firm, she was invited aboard and was soon named a vice president. Her salary was less than that of her male counterparts, but, says Monohon, now 46, "I was not a Gloria Steinem. My point was never to rock the boat."
One fellow executive of the new company was John Burridge, with whom she had begun a romance at their old firm. In the early 1980s, Monohon ended it over his objections; Burridge responded by alternately ignoring her and leaving love letters on her desk. In 1983 Monohon decided on single parenthood and became pregnant. Burridge, who was not the father, proposed marriage. She declined. When Monohon returned to work in April 1984, after giving birth to son Grant, she suddenly found herself reporting to Burridge—who promptly shut her out of meetings, interfered with her client relationships and even threatened to fire her.
The next year, when her complaints to the firm's president of Burridge's behavior went unheeded, she quit. The company then fought her claim for $164-a-week unemployment checks on grounds that she had not been fired—provoking Monohon to sue in Polk County District Court for $6.6 million, charging "outrageous conduct." "I had a child to support," she says, "but it really wasn't the money. These men were used to large figures. The verdict had to be large to get their attention."
Get their attention she did. When the suit was finally heard this summer, female employees of the company testified that Burridge sometimes tore off strips of adding-machine tape in the office and compared them to the length of his penis. Burridge admitted touching one woman worker's breasts after "misreading" her body language. The jury awarded Monohon $1.3 million for lost wages and emotional distress and $5 million in punitive damages—one of the highest awards ever. The defendants have asked that the verdict be set aside; an appeal could take years. Monohon, who now manages agents for a Des Moines insurance company, is not gloating over her triumph. Of her ordeal, she simply says, "It makes me so sad."
Nina Burleigh in Des Moines
A radio host was silenced when she dared to complain
In 1986 Cathy Bussey, 35, wife of a fundamentalist preacher and mother of two teenage daughters, was hired as the office manager for WJIS-FM, a Christian radio station in Bradenton, Fla. Quickly she became a deejay and talk show host—and, she says, the prey of station manager Don Price.
There was nothing subtle about his advances. She claims he grabbed at her, touched her breasts and made sexually suggestive comments. "For fear I would lose my job, I never said no. I just tried to ignore him," says Bussey. In 1990, shortly after receiving a $1,400 raise, she was fired for subpar performance—at Price's behest, she insists. The station board of 10 Christian pastors and businessmen refused to consider her contention that she was discharged for rebuffing Price's advances. Counters a station attorney: "The WJIS board...thoroughly researched those accusations in many lengthy meetings with Mrs. Bussey and found no evidence of sexual harassment."
After Bussey hired a local lawyer to help regain her $16,000-a-year job, the board still refused to reinstate her but offered cash settlements that began at $10,000 and escalated to $25,000. "I wouldn't accept hush money," says Bussey. Now separated from her husband of 21 years and subsisting on a $7.50-an-hour part-time job, Bussey gets help from her parents to pay the rent on her $590-a-month apartment. Yet she has no second thoughts. Earlier this month she filed suit to win reinstatement, back pay and damages. "No matter how I've suffered and will continue to suffer," she says, "I am obligated to the Lord to do what's right."
Linda Marx in Miami
January 30, 2015
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