“Sexual harassment is utterly unacceptable:" Janesville company sued by the EEOC

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Hufcor, Inc., of Janesville, the world’s leading manufacturer of operable and accordion partitions, violated federal law by allowing a female machine operator to be sexually harassed and then retaliating against her for resisting that harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed Thursday, September 25th.

According to John Rowe, director of the EEOC’s Chicago District, which includes Wisconsin, the agency’s investigation revealed that Katy Degenhardt, who worked as a machine operator at Hufcor’s Total Quality Plastics (TQP) division in North Prairie, from May 7th, 2007, to February 20th, 2013, was touched inappropriately on a regular basis by her shift coordinator for three years until he was finally fired in May 2012.

Rowe said the EEOC found that Degenhardt repeatedly reported the harassment and the retaliation to which she was subjected to Hufcor and TQP officials, but the plant manager retaliated against her for her complaints by denying her breaks, assigning her difficult work, trying to reduce her wages, denying her advancement opportunities and taking other adverse actions. Rowe said that co-workers supported Degenhardt’s claim that she was punished where others were not punished for the same actions, and that Hufcor and TQP did not take corrective action until Degenhardt hired a lawyer.

TQP ceased operations in July 2013. Hufcor’s alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The agency seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Degenhardt, an order barring future discrimination and other relief. The suit, captioned EEOC v. Hufcor, Inc., d/b/a Total Quality Plastics (Civil Action No. 2:14-cv-1186), was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and assigned to U.S. District Judge Callahan.

“Sexual harassment is utterly unacceptable in a 21st century American workplace,” Rowe said. “No one should ever have to endure such misconduct, and the EEOC is here to help victims fight it and achieve justice and civility where they have to work every day.”

EEOC Trial Attorney Dennis McBride who will litigate the case on behalf of the agency, said, “Despite the focus on sexual harassment over the past 20 years, it continues to be an area which demands our attention—especially where women are working in male-dominated environments. Retaliation against employees exercising their rights to complain about mistreatment is also an ongoing problem the EEOC needs to combat. And fighting discrimination is always in the public interest. So we have at least three important reasons for pursuing this case.”

EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney John C. Hendrickson said, “Our experience has been that sexual harassment is a violation which effective management can readily avoid if it is determined to do so. If word comes down from the top—and is understood to be serious—that management will not stand for harassment and retaliation and people who engage in it do so at the risk of their jobs, it has a way of going away. On the other hand, in the absence of good management, sexual harassment and retaliation can quickly get out of control and expose the employer to a serious risk of loss.”

According to its website, Hufcor is a privately held U.S.A. corporation and is the world’s leading manufacturer of operable and accordion partitions. Hufcor is headquartered in Janesville, and also has manufacturing facilities in Australia, China, Germany, Malaysia and Mexico. Its export markets are Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe, Canada and Mexico.