British Columbia

Surrey Food Bank accused of failing to protect workers after alleged sexual assault

A former employee of the Surrey Food Bank is speaking out, saying management has done nothing to protect female staff after she was sexually harassed, and then assaulted by a male co-worker in the fall.

Former employee Janica Izzard claims she was sexually harassed and assaulted by a colleague in September

Former Surrey Food Bank employee Janica Izzard claims she was punished after she reported that a fellow employee had sexually harassed and sexually assaulted her. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A former employee of the Surrey Food Bank is speaking out, saying management has done nothing to protect female staff after she was sexually harassed, and then assaulted by a male co-worker in the fall.

Janica Izzard began volunteering with the non-profit in December 2019, before being hired on honorarium as its senior registration clerk. She says she was subjected to unwanted advances from her very first shift.

"He just came in and was extra friendly and was like, 'Hey, I heard there's a new pretty volunteer,'" said Izzard, 25. "It just continued to ramp up from there."

Along with flirtatious comments, Izzard says the man — an older employee who CBC is not naming because he hasn't been charged with a crime — would invade her personal space, brushing up against her and at one point touching her hair. If she tried to set boundaries — telling him to get back to work, that his jokes weren't funny or simply walking away — she says he would get angry, at times calling her "a brat" or suggesting she hug him as atonement.

She says she was reluctant to discuss the issues with food bank management, fearing they would be ignored.

It was only after a supervisor caught her crying that her concerns were escalated.

On Sept. 3, Izzard says the man, a longtime employee, blocked the doorway to the office where she worked.

As she tried to enter the room, he grabbed her hands in an attempt to dance with her. She told him to "get off" and ran to another area, but says he followed her. He allegedly continued to touch her, "drawing pictures" on her back despite more requests he stop. She eventually went and hid in a back office, where the supervisor found her, and insisted they report the incident.

Izzard took her complaint to Surrey RCMP, who interviewed the male employee and closed the case. 

Fear of coming forward

In an email shared with CBC, Surrey Food Bank manager of volunteer resources Adam Colgrove outlined Izzard's experiences for food bank executives, calling the male employee's behaviour "unacceptable," and suggesting it would "escalate if not addressed."

But while executives assured Izzard that they had "dealt with it," she says the behaviour continued. It was only when another employee complained, again on her behalf, that a meeting was scheduled.

"I said, 'I'm not satisfied that this is resolved, because he's still doing it,'" said Izzard. She claims no one in the meeting took any notes, but that management promised to talk to the employee. Again the behaviour persisted, so she filed a bullying and harassment claim with WorkSafeBC. 

The occupational watchdog would not comment on the file, citing privacy concerns. However, an email from Surrey Food Bank executive director Feezah Jaffer shows the non-profit "erred on the side of caution," determining bullying and harassment did occur, and that a formal reprimand would be added to the male employee's file.

The non-profit said it also updated its policies according to WorkSafe guidelines, and that a training session for staff is scheduled, but has been delayed until March due to COVID guidelines.

Sally Lyons, who is currently employed by the Surrey Food Bank, has 'zero confidence' in management, based on their response to Izzard's complaints of harassment and assault. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Izzard, however, argues the non-profit punished her while refusing to hold her harasser accountable.

In a claim with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, she says the food bank covered one of her shifts without explanation shortly after she reported the harassment to WorkSafe; she hasn't been back since. The non-profit claims Izzard was never told directly not to come back, and instead chose not to return.

"If I let them get away with it, that's setting the example for every other staff member and volunteer that, hey, if you report something you're probably going to lose your job," said Izzard.

She wants the food bank to acknowledge that she was sexually assaulted and to admit her complaint was handled improperly.

Current employees, too, worry the accused has been emboldened by the food bank's response.

"The harasser has absolutely not changed any of his behaviour," said Sally Lyons, Surrey Food Bank food distribution coordinator. "He made a joke about himself being accused of sexual harassment to me while at work."

Clear complaint process recommended

Fearing others may face retaliation for speaking out, Izzard filed a complaint with the Food Bank's board of directors.

In an email, Surrey Food Bank Society president Sam Sidhu outlined the findings of the resulting investigation, writing that an independent third party determined Izzard's complaint "lacked credibility and that her complaint should be dismissed," despite Jaffer's previous acknowledgement that harassment had occurred.

Feezah Jaffer, executive director of the Surrey Food Bank, says the non-profit encourages employees to bring their complaints forward so they may be addressed. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The executive director, meanwhile, says the non-profit is not perfect, but has an "open door policy" and takes matters of sexual harassment and assault seriously.

"It's something small businesses need to work on because, I think, there's that family atmosphere in a small knit team, so when something does occur it makes it difficult," she said.

UBC Allard School of Law professor Janine Benedet, meanwhile, says small businesses and non-profits need to have well defined sexual harassment policies, including clear processes for complaints, in order to convey what is acceptable behaviour.

"The idea that you're being passed off to someone else, that it's not being taken seriously, and that you become the problem employee for complaining, and actually experience retaliation for that, is very common in sexual harassment cases," she said.

"It's something that organizations need to be on guard against."

With files from Belle Puri