A black female factory worker, who was told by a white fellow workers that if she could be his slave he would train her sexually to be his "bitch," has won a state sex discrimination lawsuit related to that and other sexist remarks and acts.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled today that an employer is responsible for verbal and physical sexual advances and harassments of a woman employe by her male co-workers. The decision, believed to be a precedent, expanded the term "conditions of employment" in the state's antidiscrimination law, which is similar to such laws in other states and the federal government.
The court awarded $5,000 in damages and lost wages to Willie Ruth Hawkins, who quit her job at a Continental Can Co. plant in surburban Eagan after the company ignored her complaints that one or another of three men working with her:
Told her he could so arouse her sexually that she would want to leave her husband.
Told her he wished slavery would return so she could be his "bitch."
Told her women who worked in factories were tramps.
Petted her buttocks and grabbed her between the legs when she leaned over a machine.
The Minnesota Supreme Court said that when Hawkins complained to a supervisor, he informed her that there was nothing he could do and that she had to expect that kind of behavior when working with men.
"In our view, the Minnesota Human Rights Act does not impose the duty on the employer to maintain a pristine working environment. Rather, it imposes a duty on the employer to take prompt and appropriate action when it knows or should know of co-employes' conduct in the workplace amounting to sexual harassment."
The act makes no specific mention of co-worker conduct but does cover conditions of employement.
The unanimous decision held that the law includes sexual harassment which "impacts on the condtions of employment when the employer knew or should have known of the employes' conduct alleged to constitute sexual harassment and fails to take timely and appropriate action."
The court noted that the act differed from federal court decisions ruling sexual harassment was illegal sex discrimination. It said the typical situation in those federal cases involved a male supervisor or manager who "demands sexual favors" and fires or demotes the woman subordinate when she refuses to comply.
The Minnesota court ordered Continental Can, which is said "took no action whatsoever," to take prompt and appropriate action in the future when it knows or should know of behavior in the plant amounting to sexual harassment.
The Minnesota court also noted that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued interim guidelines along the same lines as the Hawkins case.