Transit worker fears return to work after harassment suit

An arbitrator has ruled in favour of a harassed female HSR employee, but she still worries about going to work. The report describes a male-dominated culture in the city's transit system, and how the city failed to provide her with the most basic protection.

She’s been a Hamilton Street Railway  employee for 23 years. She loves her job — the friendships she develops with drivers, the camaraderie of coworkers, that feeling of satisfaction of helping people get to and from where they need to go.

But she’s not looking forward to going to work today.

AB, which is how she’s described in a judgment from an arbitrator this month, is working an afternoon shift today after her usual days off.

But today will be the first day since word has gotten out of the arbitration decision finding that her former manager, Bill Richardson, sexually harassed her. The arbitrator's decision finds that the city failed to provide even the most basic protection for AB when she tried to get help from management. City council will discuss the decision at its meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

AB believes she has done a good thing for future female HSR employees. But she still fears a frosty reception.

“I’m on the road, which helps a little bit,” she said of Wednesday’s shift. “But I’m not looking forward to it in the least.”

AB’s case has been a divisive one for the HSR — one that according to the arbitrator's decision involves lewd emails, unwanted touching and derogatory insults such as “Irish skank.”

She started working for HSR at age 26 and loved it right away, she said. In 2004, she was promoted to inspector, which involves keeping the transit service moving efficiently by communicating with drivers in the field. She was the only female among 14 inspectors, and there were no women in HSR's upper management at the time.

She got the sense immediately, she said, that it was a male-dominated culture. She worried about proving she could do the job. It was “very tight group,” she testified. She watched another female try the role of inspector and leave, citing a “poisoned culture.” But AB stayed on.

Pornographic emails

Early in AB’s tenure, she said, a supervisor called her to ask what she was wearing under her uniform. She hung up on him, and he didn’t make an inappropriate comment to her again.

But trouble really started in December 2006, when according to the arbitrator's report, Richardson sent her a pornographic email.

AB testified she didn’t do anything at first, thinking he’d sent it by accident. But several more followed – 38 recorded from 2006 to 2009. AB asked him to stop, which he did for a few months. That pattern continued again – more emails, a request to stop, the emails tapering off – until AB told Richardson she’d file a formal complaint about him.

According to the arbitration report, “Mr. Richardson merely chuckled.”

In early 2008, AB testified, it got physical. While seated at radio control, she said, he stepped up behind her and massaged her shoulders. She asked him to stop. Then in April, she got two emails with profanity, including one that responded to a shift change with “F--k off!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Severance package of $200,000

In the report, AB outlines more alleged misconduct, including being called an “Irish skank” and the implication that she required hand surgery because “you haven’t had a man in over a year, so you’ve had to look after yourself.”

According to the decision, AB complained to city management several times and had varied responses. Eventually, she switched to working nights to stay away from Richardson.

“Why is it that I have to change my shift to stay away from him?” she wrote at one point.

The city eventually dismissed Richardson in August 2012 after 24 years of service. He got a severance package of about $200,000.

This month, the arbitrator ruled in favour of AB, awarding her $25,000. Five thousand is for lost wages, and $20,000 is in damages from the city for not protecting her from harassment and discrimination. AB also filed a human rights complaint, which was settled outside of the hearing.

City had an 'insensitive response'

The city “failed to take even the most basic substantive measures to protect her — principally removing Mr. Richardson as her supervisor,” arbitrator Kelly Waddingham wrote in her Sept. 18 decision.

In fact, Waddingham wrote, “it is reasonable to conclude that the damage to AB’s dignity, feelings and self respect was only exacerbated by the city’s half-hearted and insensitive response.”

It’s an example of the culture of the transit world, which despite some progress, remains a boys’ club, said Eric Tuck, vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107.

This is especially true in Hamilton, he said.

“In HSR, there has been a systematic problem,” he said. “We’ve had women working there for over 25 years now. For (AB) to be the only female inspector moved up the ladder, there’s an issue.”

Transit still a man's world

Transit, he said, is “similar to fire and police. It’s traditionally been a male-dominated workforce.” 

Women drivers even face discrimination from passengers, Tuck said.

“We’ve had incidents where people get on the bus and say, ‘You should be in the kitchen, not driving a bus.’”

Since 2007, there have been two other complaints of sexual harassment in the HSR, both of which reached mediated settlements, Tuck said.

Since AB’s complaint, HSR has hired two female managers, Tuck said. AB should be one of those advancing, but she likely won’t be.

Still afraid of reprisal

“I tried to encourage her to continue on the path she was one, but she’s afraid of reprisal,” he said. “She’s a very good, very competent inspector and I think she’d make a great manager.”

Between AB’s settlement and two other major arbitrations related to seniority rights, Tuck said, morale at HSR is “at an all-time low.”

Despite it all, AB still loves her job — so much so, she said, that one of the worst parts of the situation was her fear of losing it.

Most of her co-workers have been supportive of her, she said.

“But two or three have stopped talking me. I would walk in the room and they would go dead silent. That was hard.”

Hired and terminated in Guelph

The decision also orders the city to analyze its anti-discrimination It Starts With You program, provide discrimination and harassment training to all managers and supervisors, and to post the relevant policies in plain view in HSR offices.

Richardson, who did not attend the hearing, was hired by Guelph Transit this month as its supervisor of mobility services. He was given glowing references from two colleagues at the city. He was fired on Tuesday when his new employers learned of the arbitration decision, the Guelph Mercury reports.

For AB, “it’s just a matter of healing the situation,” she said. “It’s going to take a while.”

As for Wednesday, “I’m kind of dreading it,” she said.

“I guess I’ll just get through it, the way I’ve gotten through everything else.”

HSR director Don Hull and a city human resources manager could not be reached for comment.


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