Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Monday June 17th, 2013, 6:34pm

Rampant Sexual Harassment, Gender Discrimination In Will County Warehouses Leads To New Task Force (VIDEO)

An overwhelming majority of women employed in Will County’s warehouses regularly face sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ). The organization has partnered with local lawmakers to form a special task force intended to address the issue.

The seven-person task force, comprised of several Joliet City Council members,Will County Board members and community activists, announced their formation at a press conference Monday.

The group aims to determine the scope of the problem and prepare preventative policy recommendations by 2014.

“I’ve seen women be targeted or retaliated against because they spoke out or refused sexual advances from supervisors,” said Cindy Marble, a lifelong resident of Joliet and community organizer with WWJ.

For more than five years, Marble, a mother of four, was placed at different local warehouses by temporary staffing agencies. She said women are often forced to work in hostile working environments.

“A lot of women just want to go to work, take care of their families, and go home, and that’s it,” she said. “They’re afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.”

In addition to conducting telephone surveys of female warehouse workers as a method of investigation, the group also plans to host a series of fact-finding forums, during which warehouse workers are encouraged to come forward and expose discriminatory workplace conditions. Therapists and legal representation will be in attendance at the sessions.

The task force also plans to send a letter to local employers announcing their formation and sending “the message that gender discrimination will not be tolerated.”

“Sexual harassment is a crime and it will be treated as such,” said Marble. “It will not be tolerated in Will County."

Here’s more from Marble:

Of the estimated 30,000 warehouse jobs in Will County’s distribution and related manufacturing industries, roughly 25 percent of workers are female, according to Leah Fried, spokesperson for WWJ.

Fried called Will County the “heart of distribution” for the Chicagoland area. She added that two major intermodal facilities in the area prompted companies to build their distribution centers nearby, stimulating a massive concentration of factories and warehouses.

“In this huge hub of factories, we’ve seen a pattern of wage theft, discrimination and abuse,” she said. “There’s a real need for an organization to advocate and help women get through this process of fighting sexual harassment. Several women who did it on their own either got fired or the harassment didn’t stop.”

Fried cited a preliminary WWJ survey of 53 female warehouse workers which found that majority of those polled had been sexually harassed, discriminated against, or noted that men were given preferential treatment at work. She said the task force will provide WWJ a chance to take a deeper look and offer policy recommendations that “proactively prevent” workplace abuse in Southwest Suburban Chicago. 

She also pointed to a recent federal class action sexual harassment lawsuit that resulted in a settlement with Partners Warehouse. Four workers sued the company after they were fired and arrested for theft when one worker complained of sexual abuse in the company's Elwood factory. The company settled with the employees in March following WWJ's intervention.

Joliet City Council member Jim McFarland, a member of the newly-formed task force, called workplace abuses against women in Will County’s warehouses a “growing epidemic.”

In addition to McFarland, the task force includes Marble; Elizabeth Nevarez, executive director of the Spanish Center of Joliet; Charlotte Droogan, lay minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Joliet; Terry Morris, member of the Joliet City Council; and Will County Board members Denise Winfrey and Tom Weigel.

“As a policymaker like myself, in an elected role, I need to make sure that [in] these jobs we’re creating, we put a kibosh on these concerns dealing with sexual harassment,” McFarland said.

The group's first fact-finding session will be hosted on July 10 at the Spanish Community Center in Joliet, at 309 Eastern Ave., at 6:30 p.m.

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