Even after 21 years working as an electrician, Celené Garcia still has to deal with sexual harassment on the job.
“Just a year ago, a laborer decided that the room I was working in was his changing area … and that it was OK for him to walk in and simply drop his pants and change,” said Garcia, 47. She reported him to the general contractor, who offered to fire the laborer.
Garcia, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and works in New York, asked that the laborer attend training instead, in the hope that he would understand “that I’m a damn good electrician … I deserve that respect.”
Sexual harassment remains a problem on New York City’s male-dominated construction sites, despite a new state law and policy changes made last year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted reforms in January 2019 that include requiring general contractors to provide sexual harassment training courses to laborers. And a 2019 state law requires companies to have sexual harassment policies and make harassment easier to prove in court.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a tradeswoman who hadn’t been put in some kind of awkward sexual situation,” said Kristine Azzoli, 34, a New York City-based pointer, cleaner and caulker, who quit a job because she was propositioned by a foreman.
“It’s all over the place … sexism, out-and-out discrimination, rape and assault,” said Michelle Maldonado, 51, an electrician from New York City, who has fielded sexist comments and witnessed men touching their groins in front of her. She said she calls out the former and chalks the latter up to a lack of women in the construction industry.
Women make up 3.2% of New York City’s construction industry overall and earn less than men in the trades jobs, where median annual income is $70,780.
In interviews, tradeswomen described lewd comments, groping, offensive jokes, lascivious looks, and suggestive calls and texts from male coworkers sent after hours.
The Long Island construction firm Trade Off LLC agreed in July to pay $1.5 million to 18 women to settle claims of sexual harassment and retaliation. The settlement was state Attorney General Letitia James’ first regarding sexual harassment in the construction industry.
“What I and other former employees of Trade Off went through speaks to the often sexist and abusive nature of the construction business,” said Tierra Williams, a former Trade Off employee, in a news release from James’ office.
The workplace harassment law took effect in August 2019. It seeks to protect contract laborers in New York against retaliation, grants survivors more time to file a complaint, and puts some of the onus on employers to address harassment in the workplace. It also lowers the standard from “severe and pervasive” in sexual harassment lawsuits.
The law establishes that “an employer could be aware of [harassment] just by observing it. There doesn’t have to be a complaint,” said Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, D-Astoria. Simotas co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Hunts Point, in collaboration with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a collective of seven former legislative staffers campaigning for workplace protections.
A 2018 study by Engineering News-Record on sexual harassment in the construction industry found that 66% of tradeswomen have experienced sexual harassment or gender bias.
Fear of retaliation continues to prevent some women from reporting.
“You kind of feel like you’re going to get a target on your back,” said Azzoli.
“Even other women will be like, ‘Oh, she’s just here for a lawsuit,’” said Maldonado.
Susan Eisenberg, author of the 2018 book “We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working in Construction,” said that the small percentage of women working on site conveys the idea that women are incapable of performing construction work. Even with legislative and court victories, she doubts that sexual harassment will lessen until women make up more of the industry and hold more positions of power on job sites.
“Sexual harassment, assault, reflects a power dynamic,” said Eisenberg. As the industry currently stands, male harassers are protected and considered “more valuable employees,” she said.
Leslie Houghton, 39, a bricklayer from New York City said harassment is always on her mind. “Just being in a male-dominated industry, I think about the stuff I do… if my pants are too tight, that I wear a loose shirt,” said Houghton, who quit a job after a male colleague started a rumor that she had had sex with an older journeyman.
Azzoli said she will ask supervisors not to partner her with a man who is harassing her on the job, but she fears retaliation from male colleagues if a worker is fired because she complained.
Unions take extra steps to train members in appropriate conduct, said Maldonado, who is in Local 3 IBEW. Beyond training courses, most unions have set up formal procedures for reporting harassment, and some have created support systems for those who do.
“The union looks at it as if this is their family. … If there’s a problem, we’re going to take care of it,” said Veronica Rose, a trustee of Local 3 and owner of Aurora Electric in Queens.
Only 12.6% of construction workers belonged to a union in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The workers employed by Trade Off, the Long Island construction company embroiled in the July lawsuit, were not union members.
As an extra measure, some tradeswomen try to create safer work environments by warning other women about men who have created problems before, or by trying to deescalate harassment onsite with the help of other workers, male or female.
“Other women, instead of being afraid to speak up, feel like we have guys in the business that we know will also protect us,” said Garcia, the New Jersey electrician.
Azzoli leans on male allies and does her best to combat harassment by refusing to quit doing what she loves. After leaving a job because she was propositioned by a foreman after hours, she decided not to report the incident in full for fear of retaliation – but she resolved to persevere in the industry.
“I got myself on another job and said to myself I was never going to let a man … take food off my table by making me feel uncomfortable again,” she said.