On Thursday, an administrative judge ruled in favor of a UNC housekeeper who has complained of sexual harassment and discrimination by her supervisor and department director.
After considering 125 findings of fact, Melissa Owens Lassiter wrote in her decision that the University failed to provide Maria Isabel Prudencio-Arias with a work environment free of discrimination and retaliation.
Lassiter also said the University acted arbitrarily in applying its Policy on Prohibited Harassment and Discrimination by failing to immediately respond to her harassment claims.
The decision will be sent to a State Personnel Commission that will review the ruling and make a final decision on the case.
Prudencio-Arias’ lawyer Al McSurely said his client began experiencing sexual harassment at work in 2009 with the hiring of a new supervisor.
McSurely said Prudencio-Arias successfully got this supervisor fired by using a tape recorder as evidence of harassment against her.
She then began experiencing retaliation and harassment from the department’s director, who no longer works at UNC, McSurely said.
In September 2011, a consulting firm UNC hired provided more than 45 suggestions for improving the department following claims of mistreatment of housekeepers by management.
Darius Dixon assumed the position as head of the embattled department in April 2012. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
According to Lassiter’s conclusions, Prudencio-Arias was targeted for reporting her first supervisor. She was transferred to work in the residence halls without notice, assigned more work and required to perform work that exceeded her medical restrictions.
Prudencio-Arias said she was forced to get on her hands and knees and clean the floor of a men’s bathroom — despite her complaints that it was covered in urine — wear a heavy vacuum on her back even though she suffered from back problems and clean the outside of buildings, which falls under the Grounds Department’s work.
Lassiter said Ann Penn, Equal Opportunity/Americans with Disabilities Act officer at UNC, should have immediately investigated Prudencio-Arias’ claims of retaliation and harassment as soon as she was notified of its occurrence.
But Penn failed to do so in a timely manner, Lassiter wrote, violating the University’s Grievance Policy and Policy on Prohibited Harassment and Discrimination.
Penn could not be reached for comment Monday.
Prudencio-Arias said she continued to face harassment while the case developed and was ostracized by coworkers.
But Lassiter found that the University did not violate the state’s Whistleblower Act, for lack of proof that adverse action was taken against Prudencio-Arias.
McSurely said his client’s case is an illustration of the sexism and racism present at UNC.
“You cannot change institutional racism and sexism, which is what we’re dealing with here, by bringing in one new person. I don’t care if it’s Jesus,” McSurely said.
Prudencio-Arias said through a translator that it took courage to speak out.
“I found strength in God and in friends who took the form of angels in my life,” she said.
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