Sexual hostility at KCK factory brings federal lawsuit amid #MeToo movement

An EEOC attorney cited the #MeToo movement Thursday in praising a Kansas City, Kan., soap factory worker who pursued action on her complaints of sexual harassment.
An EEOC attorney cited the #MeToo movement Thursday in praising a Kansas City, Kan., soap factory worker who pursued action on her complaints of sexual harassment.

Federal officials sued a Chicago-based staffing company Thursday, seeking back pay and punitive damages for woman employees who were sexually harassed at a Kansas City, Kan., soap factory.

SMX LLC, which does business as Staff Management|SMX, violated the employees’ civil rights by allowing a manager to repeatedly harass the workers, said the lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC took action after one employee, Jaurdai Walker, took her complaints to the federal agency after her employer failed to stop the harassment or discipline the manager.

The company “created a hostile work environment for Walker and other female employees by allowing one of its account managers, Abbas Mohamed, to repeatedly make explicit sexual comments, demands for sexual favors, and promises for favored treatment in exchange for sexual favors,” the lawsuit said.

Mohamed also had exposed himself to Walker while soliciting a sexual favor, the suit said.

Walker complained to another supervisor at the factory, Melinda Blount, but was told that she should agree to the sex act and take the extra pay, the agency said in its complaint in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.

Finally, Walker complained to the EEOC, which took the court action Thursday.

In an announcement, EEOC regional attorney Andrea G. Baran praised Walker’s willingness to pursue her case.

“As the #MeToo movement has made all too clear, sexual harassment in the workplace is not limited to one industry, certain types of workers, by geographic areas,” she said. “But there is one thing every case of sexual harassment has in common — that it can only be stopped when victims and bystanders speak up and break the silence.”

Efforts to reach the company were unsuccessful.

According to the lawsuit, Mohamed’s harassment began from the day Walker started work and happened “almost daily.” He called her “baby” and said she was “sexy” and solicited sexual favors from her in exchange for benefits including paid time off, it said.

The suit said Mohamed also made similar harassing comments to other women working at the plant.

Walker rejected Mohamed’s advances, and he retaliated by causing her to be paid for fewer hours than she worked, the lawsuit said.

After several months, Walker was transferred to another line at the Procter & Gamble plant. SMX also put Mohamed on leave during an inquiry but then returned him to work at the factory.

Mohamed then confronted Walker in a parking lot at the factory, and she quit her job, the lawsuit said.

SMX is being sued because it failed to discipline Mohamed and allowed him to continue supervising the women even after the complaints against him.

The suit said the women employees “suffered actual damages, including but not limited to losses in compensation and benefits, humiliation, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.”

SMX is owned by another company called True Blue Inc., which is based in Tacoma, Wash. True Blue handled the EEOC’s complaints on behalf of the employees. The federal agency said it sued after being unable to reach a “pre-litigation resolution” with the companies.

Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment has been through the courts. But grassroots activism in the 1970s opened the space for a nationwide conversation, and the Civil Rights

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar