NEW YORK, NY — Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced a joint settlement with Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. (Con Edison), to resolve allegations of ongoing sexual harassment and discrimination against women in field positions. The agreement requires Con Edison to reserve up to $3.8 million to be distributed among eligible settlement group members – over 300 female workers employed in field jobs – through a claims process to be administered by the Attorney General’s Office and the EEOC.
“Sadly, the fight against gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace is ongoing, and we will use every tool we can to make it a thing of the past,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “This case should send a clear message to employers across New York State: All women, especially those working in male-dominated workplaces, deserve respect and equal treatment—as the law, basic decency, and the success of our economy require.”
“These women signed up for strenuous work when they took these important jobs – they did not sign up for demeaning job assignments, denied promotional opportunities, and harassment,” said EEOC District Director Kevin Berry. “The EEOC will fight to ensure equality in all workplaces.”
Con Edison provides electric, gas, and steam service to approximately 3.4 million customers in New York City and Westchester County. Both the EEOC and Attorney General Schneiderman’s Civil Rights Bureau launched an investigation into complaints made by women working in field positions at Con Edison about ongoing sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
The women workers, all of whom were employed at Con Edison between 2006 and 2014, alleged that the company failed to address widespread harassment and discrimination faced by women in field positions by male co-workers and supervisors. These women work with men in power stations, manholes, and other physically strenuous field positions assuring the public’s access to electricity. While working, the women alleged that they were:
Denied, delayed, and given subpar on-the-job training as compared to their male peers;
Assigned menial “make work” tasks and isolated by male co-workers in group work settings;
Refused or stonewalled when seeking admission to classes necessary for promotions;
Not provided tools or safety gear in situations where male co-workers were supplied both;
Denied adequately sanitary and private restroom, shower, and changing facilities;
Subjected to disparate and excessive discipline as compared to male co-workers who engaged in comparable conduct;
Given less positive performance evaluations than their male counterparts for doing comparable work; and
Denied overtime assignments despite eligibility under collective bargaining agreements.
The complaints further alleged that Con Edison failed to take effective action to improve or prevent such discriminatory working conditions and failed to meaningfully enforce its internal equal employment opportunity policies concerning gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and non-retaliation. Indeed, the women in field positions stated that they faced retaliation when they complained to supervisors or to Con Edison’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion about their work conditions.
The EEOC also received complaints from women that they had been delayed or denied promotions from the entry-level General Utility Worker position to various next level positions because of their gender.
Under the terms of the agreement, in addition to providing monetary relief to eligible settlement class members, Con Edison will:
Retain an independent consultant to evaluate Con Edison’s compliance with the terms of agreement;
Retain an independent equal employment opportunity specialist to develop and conduct employee training;
Institute improved policies and protocols concerning the investigation of discrimination and harassment complaints; and
Provide training to field supervisors on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with an emphasis on illegal sex discrimination and sex harassment.
The conduct at issue in the investigation concerned Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law, and New York City Human Rights Law. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, including situations in which a supervisor or co-worker creates a hostile work environment by, for example, subjecting them to sexual comments, demeaning women, and posting graphic images of women in the workplace, and also situations in which women are denied training opportunities and treated less favorably than men.
The investigation emanated from charges filed by seven former and current Con Edison employees who had worked in field positions during their time with the company, including Sharron Sellick, Andrea McSwain, and Kecia McCowen.
“For 19 years, I worked as a manager for a tire plant in Alabama and was treated differently than the men who were doing the same work as me,” said Lilly Ledbetter, a national leader seeking to advance women’s rights in the workplace and the namesake of the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. “I decided to fight because equal treatment of women in the workplace is an American value. We have a long way to go to secure total equality for women in the workplace. I thank the New York State Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau for fighting against gender discrimination and making sure that our workplaces are equal for everyone.”
“For the past three decades, I have worked my way up through various non-traditional male-dominated departments at Con Edison,” said Cecilia Borcherding, an Inspector at Con Edison. “It has been a long road to my present position in Construction Management, where women are still underrepresented and I am one of two females, both minority, among 38 male inspectors. I have made incredible sacrifices, including working long hours that required me to be away from my family, while enduring persistent harassment, discrimination and retaliation on the job at the hands of my male co-workers and supervisors. I cannot get back the time that I was away from my daughter. I can, however, continue to fight for equal rights for women in the field at Con Edison. This agreement should serve as a wake-up call to Con Edison and other employers that women must be treated fairly and equally, with dignity and respect. I want to thank Attorney General Schneiderman for helping us enforce our rights and empowering us to fight for justice.”
“I began working as a General Utility Worker at Con Edison in 1991. I care deeply about the working conditions faced by women at Con Edison and often go out of my way to mentor new female employees in field positions because I want to provide them with a support system that I did not have when I first joined the company,” said Prudence Foster, a Construction Representative at the company. “I would like Con Edison to be supportive of all women, especially minority women who work in the field. I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for relentlessly advocating on our behalf and working to ensure real change for women at Con Edison.”
“I worked at Con Edison for thirteen years, primarily as an Inspector in the field,” said Kawana Howard, an Inspector at Con Edison. “I loved my job, was good at what I did, and took pride in the fact that I was helping to keep our city running. Yet over the years I faced gender-based discrimination from my some of my male supervisors and co-workers, and was retaliated against when I complained, ultimately culminating in my recent termination. Employees should feel safe to complain about workplace harassment and discrimination without the threat of retaliation, and should be able to trust that their employer will take these complaints seriously. I commend the Attorney General for taking a stand against Con Edison and making our voices heard.”
“Being able to compete for and get traditionally male jobs improves women’s economic security, as they typically pay higher wages than jobs dominated by women,” said Emily Martin, Vice President and General Counsel, National Women’s Law Center. “But sexual harassment, stereotypes about women’s abilities, and other barriers all too often deny women the equal opportunities they are entitled to by law. Much more must be done to reverse this persistent and harmful trend.”