In one of the largest payouts for sexual harassment, the Ford Motor Co. will set aside $7.5 million to compensate female employees who were subjected to groping, pornography, insults and other indignities at two Chicago area plants.
Ford also agreed to pay two unnamed female workers a total of $250,000 and allot 30 percent of new supervisory posts for women at the facilities_an assembly plant on Torrence Avenue and a stamping plant in Chicago Heights_company officials said Tuesday.
Ford announced the deal at a joint news conference with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The action stops a threatened lawsuit by EEOC. The agency said only three settlements_including last year’s $3 million deal with another automaker, Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing_produced bigger payouts, and the Ford deal is the largest discrimination case settled short of a lawsuit.
Seventeen other women have outstanding suits against Ford, and the settlement does not limit damages they will receive if successful. They also may file claims against the settlement fund.
One of the 17, Suzette Wright, made a dramatic appearance at the news conference. Addressing Jim Padilla, Ford’s group vice president of manufacturing, she asked for “an apology . . . for the blatant disregard of our rights.”
Padilla replied, “To the extent that any of our employees were treated with less than full dignity, we apologize.”
Wright, 29, told reporters later that the harassment began the first day she was hired in 1993 at the Torrence Avenue plant , when she heard men’s catcalls of “fresh meat” during orientation.
One day when she hit her thumb with a mallet, she said, the plant doctor told her, “This is why I don’t like women in the plant . You’re only good at lying on your backs or standing in the kitchen.”
Wright said a supervisor made lewd remarks about her genitals when she was five months pregnant. When she complained to her union representative, he said that if he weren’t personally acquainted with her family, he’d be making passes at her himself.
John P. Rowe, district director of the EEOC, said some women who complained of harassment were subjected to intimidating and job-threatening remarks by managers. Those who were African-American also heard racial slurs, he said.
Claims on the $7.5 settlement fund will be judged by an independent three-member panel. Rowe said their work should be done in about a year, noting that the maximum damages under law are $300,000. Employees from Jan. 1, 1996, to the present may submit claims.
The agreement will last three years, which Rowe said is “the anticipated . . . period necessary to change plant culture.” Padilla, asked how long the sexually harassing culture has been in existence, replied, “Since creation.”
EEOC Chair Ida L. Castro said the problem is not unique to the auto industry. Sexual and racial harassment in the workplace have doubled in the last 10 years, she said, with the agency now receiving 80,000 new discrimination cases a year.