2 construction firms to pay a total of $500K for sexual, racial discrimination

Dive Brief:

  • A Spokane Valley, Washington, HVAC contractor will pay $361,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency announced in a release that compared the firm’s workplace culture to a “sewer.”
  • Air Control Heating & Electric’s owner, Maxim Johnston, sexually harassed female employees on a near-daily basis since 2010 and repeatedly stated that female employees did not belong in the building trades because of their sex, the suit alleged. Johnston touched women without their consent, made unwanted remarks about their bodies, requested they wear more revealing clothing, offered them tickets to a nearby strip club and purposefully left condoms and personal lubricant where a female employee would find them, EEOC charged.
  • The fine is the maximum allowed by statute for a firm of Air Control’s size, EEOC said, and will be paid to seven current and former female employees, one of whom quit her job when the firm’s corporate directors failed to rein in Johnston’s behavior. The firm performs commercial and residential work. 

Dive Insight:

Johnston did not immediately respond to Construction Dive’s requests for comment made via phone and email.

The suit highlights the monetary and reputational risk contractors face for inappropriate behavior in the workplace as EEOC focuses on harassment in construction to ensure infrastructure spending doesn’t fund discrimination. 

“The EEOC’s lawsuit should remind employers of the need to treat sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious issue,” said EEOC Seattle Field Office Director Elizabeth Cannon in a release. “Regardless of whether it happens to women in a male-dominated industry or anywhere else, sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace is illegal. Employers who allow sexually hostile work environments violate the law.”

In May, EEOC singled out construction as a hotbed of racist and sexual harassment, during a graphic, day-long hearing looking at the industry in light of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, much of which will be awarded to construction firms.

Racial harassment suit

In a separate case, EEOC also announced a $140,000 settlement with Waukesha, Wisconsin-based commercial renovation firm Giertsen Restoration in a race harassment and retaliation lawsuit.

Giertsen’s Black employees were repeatedly subjected to racial slurs and comments, which managers witnessed and took part in, the EEOC’s suit alleged. Although employees complained about the hostile work environ­ment, the company did not address the harassment. Instead, Giertsen assigned one of the employees who complained to more physically demanding work and then fired him as retaliation, the EEOC said.

Giertsen did not immediately respond to Construction Dive’s requests for comment.

“Employers cannot allow their employees to be subjected to racial slurs and comments,” said Wendy Martin, area director of the EEOC’s Milwaukee Area Office. “Such conduct must not be tolerated in the workplace.”

The $140,000 will go to employees who suffered the harassment, EEOC said, while the settlement also calls for Giertsen to provide training for employees and to appoint an equal employment opportunity officer, who will be responsible for handling any future discrimination complaints at the company.

The prevalence of racist and biased actions in construction gained attention in the industry after the murder of George Floyd two years ago. Construction Dive documented over 20 incidents of nooses and other racist incidents on jobsites in 2020.

During the EEOC hearing on discrimination and harassment in construction in May, EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows said nooses on construction jobsites had become “chillingly common.”

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