Remember Smith Barney’s infamous boom-boom room? In the basement of a Long Island brokerage office, it featured a toilet hanging from the ceiling and a lined garbage can filled with Bloody Mary mix. A female broker who ventured into the room was grabbed and kissed on the lips by her manager. Things were pretty bad for women upstairs too.
Smith Barney was hit with a sex discrimination class action that cost the company millions of dollars.
You would think that would have taught employers to toss bigoted, bullying, and harassing managers out the door before they abuse workers, but no.
Not far from Smith Barney’s boom-boom room, New York City Parks Department managers set up their own version, even using the same name. Located in a city-owned building on Randall’s Island, the Parks room sometimes sported a portable stripper pole for parties, and women learned that they were expected to perform on it if they wanted better jobs, invitations to return after their seasonal jobs were over, or permanent work. Colleagues and supervisors paid them cash for stripping, kissing the men, and other acts.
These allegations come from women who worked for the department and attended the Randall Island parties. Many of the affected employees were single mothers who depended on the low-wage jobs to support their families. They told stories of harassment going back to 2009, saying it got worse over time. One woman told New York Daily News:
The men started demanding a lot more. They were like, ‘You want us to give you money, show us something.’ And for the New Year’s party, it got really grabby. Some women stripped to their panties and bras, and men were slapping asses. It was out of control.
Supervisors didn’t limit their harassment to the boom-boom room. One supervisor would snap women’s bra straps. Another lifted a female employee’s shirt and licked her stomach, then shoved his face in her crotch while the two were alone in an elevator.
This isn’t the first time the Parks Department management’s prejudice has gotten it into trouble. The city had to pay $21 million to settle a class action accusing the department of “discrimination in promotion and pay, and retaliation against employees who filed charges of race, color or national origin discrimination.”
One of the attorneys for the black and Latino employees, (my former colleague) Lewis M. Steel, said, “The health of our City is based upon equal employment opportunities.” Even after the enormous payout in that case, though, the Parks Department remains a malignancy in New York City’s government.
At least this time the city couldn’t start investigating fast enough when the allegations of sexual harassment arose. According to a City Hall spokesman, “The Parks Department acted immediately after learning of the allegations and the Department of Investigations is conducting a full probe. Once all the facts are established, appropriate steps will be taken immediately.”
The city has suspended the two men identified as the worst offenders, James Cafaro and his boss, Angelo Figueroa.
Workplace race and sex discrimination and sexual harassment are not relics of the “Mad Men” era. Discrimination and retaliation remain deeply ingrained in the cultures of some workplaces — so deep that having to pay $21 million isn’t enough to shake them loose.
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