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Underreporting Makes Sexual Violence At Work Difficult To Address

Elizabeth Cadle of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission answers questions on Feb. 16 about the $1 million settlement of a lawsuit against Vail Run Resort.
John Leyba
Denver Post via Getty Images
Elizabeth Cadle of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission answers questions on Feb. 16 about the $1 million settlement of a lawsuit against Vail Run Resort.

In a relatively rare victory for abused workers, Vail Run Resort in Colorado recently agreed to pay more than $1 million to settle a sexual harassment case. The case was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of members of the hotel's housekeeping employees.

The company failed to address attempted rapes of its housekeeping staff. As part of the settlement, the company will have a monitor for five years and will be required to do extensive sexual-harassment training of its managers.

There are no recent, reliable statistics about sexual violence at work. The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated there were more than 43,000 workplace rapes and sexual assaults a year. But anti-rape advocates say that vastly underreports the crimes, because many victims are afraid to or discouraged from coming forward.

Take, for example, Marie Billiel. She had just started college and a job as an overnight waitress when propositions from one of the cooks became more than that. "One night it escalated to him grabbing my wrist and pulling me out back into the larger prep area towards the walk-in cooler," Billiel says.

The kitchen was empty, but she managed to get away and report the incident to her manager. The reaction was not what she expected.

" 'I've got 20 applications under the register,' " she says she was told. "You know, they made it very clear that we were expendable labor."

It was during the Great Recession, and Billiel says she worried about finding another job in her western Massachusetts town.

"Even though I was upset about it, it seemed like it was less of a big deal to everybody else, so then I didn't know if it was my overreaction," she says.

This is a familiar story for Linda Seabrook, general counsel at Futures Without Violence, an advocacy group.

"Sexual assaults in general are vastly underreported, and even more so at work," she says.

Seabrook herself didn't report an incident that happened years ago, when she managed a restaurant part-time. A fellow manager pinned her in a corner late one night, pressuring her for sex. She escaped, but never reported it, a fact that seems harder to explain now because she was later a law student and knew her rights.

"I should have, but I didn't report it to upper management because I didn't want to lose my job," she says.

She was young, uncertain about workplace norms, and, like so many other women facing similar situations, she says, she needed the income.

"People who have fewer economic options are more dependent upon that job," Seabrook says.

One plaintiff in the EEOC's Vail Run Resort case is Maria Luisa Baltazar Benitez, whose supervisor repeatedly tried to rape her.

"I was doing my work, and I saw him and he already had his pants down, and then he grabbed me and he pulled down my pants, because we wore ones that were made of elastic," she says.

Benitez says as he tried to tear her underwear, she grabbed her phone. Her attacker fled as she threatened to call the police. His supervisors, she says, ignored her complaints.

Vail Run Resort did not return calls seeking comment. In a separate criminal proceeding, a jury convicted the attacker, Omar Quezada, of extortion and unlawful sexual contact.

Mary O'Neill, one of the EEOC's prosecuting attorneys, says employment law does provide protections for undocumented workers, though many are not aware of it. She says outreach efforts are leading to more sexual abuse filings.

"There are many of these cases. There's probably more than we could litigate," O'Neill says.

She says it's not just women who face workplace sexual violence. About 17 percent of cases filed with her agency involve men, who often face other hurdles.

"There's a different dynamic there, which is, people will say, 'Well, why didn't you just beat him up?' " O'Neill says.

Perpetrators, she says, almost always target multiple victims.

"One of the reasons these are not so hard to win is because you have many victims who come and tell the same story and they don't even know each other," O'Neill says.

That was the case at the Colorado resort, O'Neill says, and the employer who turned a blind eye was held responsible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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