The #MeToo movement began in a hail of accusations from famous women against powerful, well-known men.
But most women who suffer sexual harassment on the job, who lose work because they refuse a supervisor’s advances, who silently endure lewd comments and groping, aren’t famous and never will be.
Headlines have largely moved on from the stories that exposed high-power men and the women who came forward against them, but the problem of workplace sexual harassment persists, especially for those who have no voice and everything on the line.
The Dallas Morning News recently spoke with three women in blue-collar industries — industries often dominated by men — who say they suffered persistent sexual harassment and were punished for speaking up years before the #MeToo movement began.
Each of the women is or has been involved in litigation against her former employer, and all three are telling their stories publicly for the first time. Their experiences are similar, part of an increasingly familiar pattern of alleged harassment that has spurred women across the world to speak out for change.
“You’ve got to be tough as nails if you’re a woman in these environments,” said attorney Bobby Lee, who represents many women in the Dallas area who have alleged sexual harassment and is representing the three women who agreed to speak to The News.
“In a male-dominated type of environment like that, if you don’t go along with the stuff that goes on, then you no longer get the best treatment or the best training and you’re the first one to go,” he said.
‘Like you’re nothing’
It was 2014, and Jamietris Jones was working on the night shift for Trinity Industries in an East Texas rail yard.
Thirty-seven years old and a mother of four, Jones was used to working in jobs dominated by men, where crass and sexist comments often came her way. She figured she could hold her own. But what she said she experienced at Trinity was, in her word, “hell.”
Initially, she enjoyed her job with Trinity. But when she moved to a team where she was the only woman, sexual harassment became a daily experience, she said.
Male co-workers would shine flashlights on her rear end, laugh and talk about her body as she’d climb ladders to work on the tops of the train cars, she said. Applying lip balm or eating lunch came with commentary about what sex acts her lips would be good for, so she started eating alone outside or putting on lip balm when no one was around, she said.
Co-workers asked her to have sex with them, she said. They’d describe things they wanted to do to her body and what parts they could imagine unclothed. Some would text her pictures of their genitals or try to show her pornography, she said.
Over and over, she asked them to stop. They responded that she must be on her period or not capable of handling the workplace, she said.
“It was every day. It was always how my jeans were fitting or what my crotch looked like in these kinds of pants,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re nothing. You look at it like, OK, am I just some trash? Do I look easy? You begin to question even little things like what you wear.”
She became anxious getting ready for work. She would wear two shirts to hide her body. Her young children knew something was wrong even though she tried to put on a good face.
“You just want to come out here and work, you know? You do whatever you can to defuse the situation. You try to shrug it off, but when it becomes an everyday thing, you can’t just shrug it off anymore,” she said.
In July 2014, Jones reported sexual harassment to her managers and the human resources department at Trinity. She said she was told she was probably misinterpreting things and that she should have known what she signed up for when taking this kind of job, she said. She begged to be moved to any other position within the company, even if it meant a pay cut. She was denied a reassignment, she said.
Human resources told her they’d investigate, which she said they did by telling her co-workers of her accusations, something she asked them not to do. The men denied any wrongdoing, and the investigation was dropped, according to Jones. That’s when the retaliation began, she said.
She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2014 and decided to take legal action.
Trinity Industries denied any wrongdoing in initial legal documents. Lee, Jones’ attorney, said the case recently settled for an amount he did not disclose. As part of that settlement, Jones signed a non-disclosure agreement and can no longer discuss the case. Her comments about her time at Trinity came prior to the settlement.
The company declined to comment on the lawsuit, but provided a written statement:
“Trinity Industries takes all allegations of harassment very seriously. We value our female workforce and their contributions to our Company’s success. In keeping with Trinity’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and our strong core values, we do not and will not tolerate any conduct that infringes upon our employees’ right to a safe workplace free from harassment.”
Jones recalled that her job became far more difficult after she complained. Some of her co-workers refused to work with her, she said. They reported her to management for things like not wearing a safety vest, allegations she said were false.
In 2014, she failed to have the correct number of people on the railroad track while training another employee. Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 21, 2014 she was fired through a voicemail message and told she was out of a job because it wasn’t her first offense, she said. The other offenses cited were based on false reports from co-workers, she said.
A week after losing her job, financial tensions mounted. Jones’ husband of 16 years left her and their four young children. She and the kids bounced from apartment to apartment and paycheck to paycheck as Jones tried to keep them out of poverty.
Jones said she questioned her decision to report the harassment many times. But she’s no longer burdened by those thoughts.
“This is the reason why a lot of women don’t come forward because the loss is way bigger than the gain,” she said. “You’re going to lose a whole lot. I lost a whole lot. But I want people to know what’s happening to women like me. I don’t want anyone else to go through this.”
‘I just wanted it to stop’
Tabitha Patterson’s hands tremble when she talks about the sexual harassment she said she endured at the hands of her supervisor at a manufacturing company in Dallas. Three years have passed, but the pain is fresh.
In February 2015, Patterson, 35, found a night shift job at Foam Fabricators in Keller through a temporary job agency. She liked the demanding work as a press operator, and, after 90 days, she was hired on full-time and given a raise.
Things were looking up for the single mother of two young children. But Patterson said her supervisor’s behavior grew increasingly inappropriate. What started as uncomfortable compliments about her looks evolved into vulgar comments and sexual behavior, she said.
On several occasions, Patterson said, she turned around and saw him making thrusting motions. When she stepped away from her workstation, he would dig in her gym bag for her underwear, she recalled. One day, she said, she walked into the warehouse to find him waving a pair above his head in front of co-workers.
He would rub her shoulders and pull at her clothing to look at her underwear, Patterson said. Several times she turned around and saw him standing behind her with his pants undone and his penis in his hand, she said. He asked her to go into an office and perform oral sex for $20 or have sex with him to get a raise, she said.
“It was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve ever gone through,” Patterson said through tears. “It just wasn’t right how the company treated me. I just wanted it to stop. I told them I didn’t want to cause any problems, I didn’t want anyone to get fired.”
The women’s bathroom became the place she would hide. But she said her supervisor followed her in one day and stood outside the stall. “I just want to watch,” she recalled him saying. Another time, she pushed her body against the bathroom door to hold it shut as he tried to force his way inside, she said.
Getting ready for work triggered crippling anxiety. “I would get these attacks and just freak out to where I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “The thought of having to go and deal with it, and not knowing what he was going to do, I was terrified.”
She talked herself in and out of reporting him.
“All I’m thinking in my head is, if I come forward, am I going to lose my job? Then am I going to be able to feed my kids? Am I going to be able to find something quick enough to be able to keep our house?”
The breaking point came when her supervisor grabbed her vagina, she said. Years earlier she had been raped in her home, and now any sense of security she had rebuilt shattered.
She talked to co-workers about what was happening and was told other women who worked the night shift quit because of the supervisor’s behavior, she said.
The thought of other women going through the same thing gutted her, she said, so she worked up the courage to tell human resources and a manager what had been happening. The manager didn’t seem surprised, she said.
“I begged him to move me from night shift to day shift,” she said, “and he basically told me, ‘What do you expect me to do? Rearrange everything around you? You knew what you were getting into. You don’t have to work here.’ ”
She said her manager told her he would have to talk to her supervisor to get his side of the story. Once her supervisor found out she reported him, not only did the harassment not stop, but he started to retaliate against her by lying to co-workers and saying she was having sex with another employee, she said.
Patterson decided to get a lawyer. When she pursued a legal case, the company stopped training her for a promotion, she said.
Foam Fabricators did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In initial court documents, the company denied allegations Patterson was harassed.
Months after she reported her supervisor’s behavior, Patterson said she was told by the company that the night shift was being shut down and they no longer had a position for her. She said she later discovered other members of her team, who had less experience, were kept and moved to other teams.
“I was so scared that I was going to get fired or lose my job over it, and that’s what ended up happening,” she said. “I’m the one who got blamed and treated like the harasser instead of the victim.”
Pursuing a lawsuit against the company has stirred up emotional trauma, but it’s necessary, she said.
“I just want to be able to live a normal life again and not feel like crap for things that happened to me,” she said. “My biggest goal is to stop feeling like what happened to me was my fault.”
‘A huge power imbalance’
Predatory sexual behavior is not unique to one industry or one income bracket, but it is rampant in low-wage work environments due to the power differentials that come into play, experts say.
The women who work in environments that are dominated by men often have to fight hard to get those jobs and then are put into situations where they feel they must do whatever they can to prove their worth and be taken seriously, which only perpetuates the power imbalances that are already in play.
“This is an area in which we typically see sexual harassment because there’s a huge power imbalance. Women in these jobs are trying to break down all types of barriers and are usually dealing with harassment on top of that,” said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “We have to stop thinking of sexual harassment as a bad-apple problem in a few workplaces. It’s a much, much bigger problem.”
The problem is so pervasive that since the #MeToo movement began, Raghu said, thousands of women have come to the women’s law center to get legal counsel for workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault cases.
What has largely kept many women from speaking up about these experiences is the fear that they will lose their jobs and that they won’t be believed, Raghu said.
“We haven’t been able to see the full extent of the problem because so many people have been living in fear and silence because sexual harassment is about power,” she said. “And those in power use that power to intimidate.”
‘This is a man’s world’
Amber Johnson speaks slowly when she talks about what happened to her in that warehouse three years ago.
She was working for XPO Logistics in Dallas doing inventory control, a temporary job she found through a staffing agency, when she said she was harassed, threatened and groped on the job by male co-workers.
It began in August 2015 after she turned down a newly hired co-worker who asked her on a date. He cursed at her for saying no, she said. Johnson, 35, reported the incident to her supervisor but was still tasked with training the new employee, she said.
One day, the man who asked her out told her he would rape her, she said. Another time, she said the man told her, “I’m going to slap the (expletive) out of you,” after she was praised for doing good work while filling in for him. He and other men in the warehouse would make lewd comments and inappropriate gestures.
She recalled verbally reporting harassment to supervisors at XPO Logistics or Paramount Staffing, the temp agency, at least a dozen times over the span of eight months. Each time she was told someone would look into it, she said.
“This is a man’s world,” she said. “They allowed it to go on. It wasn’t right.”
On April 26, 2016, Johnson said she clocked in for work and was walking into the warehouse alongside two male co-workers when one of them grabbed her vagina.
She started to cry and asked the man why he would do that, she said. She remembers him laughing in response.
An email provided to The News shows Johnson gave a detailed report of the incident to her supervisor, human resources and the staffing agency the next day. After sending the email, she was told someone would look into it, she said, but help wasn’t forthcoming.
“They don’t want you to say anything,” she said. “A woman has no voice in a man’s environment.”
XPO Logistics said the company investigated the report of Johnson being grabbed.
“The investigation involved Ms. Johnson, along with the accused employee and a direct witness to the event in question, and concluded that there is no truth to the allegations,” the company said. “We do not tolerate any harassment or retaliation at XPO, period. We’re proud of our inclusive culture of safety and respect. Our training and development programs encourage all employees, including women, to feel empowered to advance to higher paying positions.”
An XPO spokeswoman said Johnson never reported incidents of verbal harassment that appear in her lawsuit. Paramount Staffing did not respond to requests for comment.
Johnson said after being grabbed, she developed debilitating anxiety. She couldn’t sleep. Her peace of mind was gone.
Three months after reporting that incident, Johnson said her supervisor asked her to carry a box weighing more than 100 pounds across the warehouse — an unusual request considering her job as a desk clerk, she said.
She asked her supervisor if anyone else was available to move the box, and he said no, she recalled. Afraid of losing her job, she tried to pick up the box and injured herself, she said.
Medical documents reviewed by The News showed she injured her lower back. She was told not to lift heavy objects until she recovered.
Despite that, her supervisor asked her again to carry a heavy box across the warehouse, she said. She told him her doctor had not cleared her to do any heavy lifting. Her supervisor told her that if he had to do her job, he wouldn’t need her anymore, she said.
She was sent home for the day. On her way out of the building, the staffing agency called to tell her XPO Logistics said she was no longer needed on the job, she said. The company wanted to fill her spot with a permanent employee, she was told.
Her heart felt as though it had dropped from her chest into her stomach. Three months into her job, she had been told by her supervisors that they wanted to make her a permanent employee, but she said those conversations stopped once she reported sexual harassment. Now she was jobless.
“They didn’t want me there,” she said.
She asked the staffing agency if she could work at another XPO location but was told because of her sexual harassment complaints, she could not be placed at another location, according to the lawsuit filed on her behalf.
Shortly after losing her job, Johnson lost her apartment. Then her car. She didn’t tell her family what had happened. She slept at bus stops downtown, found meals where she could and showered at a gym so she never looked homeless.
She lived that way for four months while trying to find a job through Paramount Staffing, but was told they didn’t have any jobs for her, she said, even though both her mother and sister were able to find jobs through the company during that time.
Eventually, desperation overtook her shame, and she called her mother for help.
With her family’s love, therapy and anxiety medication, Johnson said she is slowly getting back to where she was before August 2015.
“I have peace of mind. I can now communicate with people, which I couldn’t do before. And I love myself,” she said. “I’m glad I spoke out. It’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
‘You will be heard’
Today, each of the three women is dealing with her experiences in different ways and working on moving forward, they said.
Jones works a warehouse night job now. She is close to being able to buy a home and move her children out of a cramped two-bedroom apartment in South Dallas.
Patterson is in a relationship and learning to trust again, although she says even a gentle touch can cause debilitating fear and anxiety to surface.
Johnson prays and meditates. She has started taking college courses in hopes of getting out of blue-collar work.
Both Johnson and and Patterson are on prescription medication to help with anxiety and depression.
Though the women said they were reluctant to publicly discuss what happened to them, speaking out has helped them cope. And as difficult as it is, it’s what women must do, they said — whether they work in Hollywood or a warehouse.
Johnson said it’s the only way the patterns of harassment will stop. Because today, right now, some woman is enduring the same.
“Don’t let your choice be that nothing can be done,” Johnson said. “Speak out, and you will be heard. There is always someone going through the same thing.”
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