By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
A single mother with a two-year-old daughter, Harris was looking for a part-time job that would allow her to spend some of the day with her child while providing benefits for her. A help-wanted ad for UPS caught her eye, offering work on the night shift at $8 per hour, medical, dental and vision insurance and two weeks' paid vacation.
In the fall of 1995, Harris started working at UPS's massive sorting facility in Commerce City as the only female in her department. An attractive 24-year-old, Harris immediately caught the eye of several of her co-workers, who offered to buy her soft drinks from the vending machine and asked for her phone number. She politely turned down their requests.
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At the end of her second week, she was approached by a co-worker who had somehow discovered her full name, knew where she lived and had her Social Security number. Harris was alarmed, since it seemed obvious he had been reading her employment file.
"I was freaked out," she recalls. "I told my supervisor and he just laughed. He said, 'He just likes you.'"
Harris became even more uncomfortable when another co-worker began following her into the parking lot at the end of her shift. He would corner her and ask if she was single, what she did before she came to work, who she lived with. This went on for several nights, and when Harris complained, "my supervisor told me I should be flattered so many men were interested in me."
As the months went by, Harris's colleagues on the night shift grew more bold. While a manager was standing next to her, one man walked up to Harris, looked her up and down, told her she should be a stripper and asked what kind of panties she was wearing. The supervisor laughed and walked away, remembers Harris.
An anonymous employee even posted a pornographic drawing of Harris performing oral sex on a male figure's penis, which was depicted as a giant hot dog. She complained but says none of the supervisors seemed to take it seriously. "I had one supervisor tell me I should find another job because I was too pretty to work there," says Harris.
As she continued to protest the way she was being treated -- even filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- her co-workers grew more hostile. The employee who followed her was disciplined, but several other employees blamed Harris for getting him in trouble and left anonymous notes calling her a "cunt."
"Then the harassment got ten times worse," says Harris. "I worked on a conveyor belt, and there were three guys who worked with me. They'd tell dirty jokes to see if I would get mad. They'd use the words 'cunt' or 'bitch' or 'pussy.' They knew that really bugged me."
Even her trips to the bathroom were monitored, Harris says. "I would have a supervisor standing outside of the bathroom timing me while I went. He'd be yelling at me, and everybody would be laughing. They'd say, 'She must be on the rag.'"
Harris says the harassment became a daily occurrence. "I'd have guys ask me if I spit or swallowed and if being a single mom made me easier than other women," says Harris, weeping at the memory. "I had my daughter, and I really wanted to quit, but I honestly couldn't. At that point, I was really broke and living with my mom and dad, and I needed the benefits."
Since UPS is one of the few employers that give full benefits to part-timers, Harris says many women simply decide to tolerate the abuse.
Now Harris has joined 32 other current and former female UPS employees in Colorado who are suing the company, alleging that UPS systematically harasses and discriminates against female workers in its Rocky Mountain district, which includes Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
In May the lawyers representing the women asked U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch to give the suit class-action status, meaning UPS could be held liable if a jury finds that it has consistently discriminated against its 4,000 current or former female employees since 1996. Women make up only about 9 percent of the company's workforce in the Rocky Mountain region.
For its part, UPS insists that experiences like those alleged by Harris are isolated and that the company isn't a hostile place for women to work. The huge Atlanta-based delivery firm also sees itself as a target for money-hungry trial attorneys.
"There's no question some folks look at UPS as a financially stable company that is doing quite well," says UPS spokeswoman Peggy Gardner. "Large companies are reviewed more closely [for discrimination] than small ones because the financial potential is greater."
Gardner says she can't comment on the lawsuit, but she believes UPS has an above-average record when it comes to encouraging diversity in the workplace. She says the company has made it clear to managers and employees at every level that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated.