Lawsuit says nonunion ODOT contractor tolerated severe sex and racial harassment

Orvin Dean, a member of Portland-based Painters Local 10, worked for Abhe & Svoboda in New Jersey and Florida three years ago — an experience that he said makes him concerned about the wellbeing workers on the company’s Ross Island Bridge project.

By Don McIntosh

Members and staff of the Painters and Allied Trades union have for months been handing out fliers near the west end of the Ross Island Bridge — to publicize unscrupulous employment practices at nonunion bridge painting contractor Abhe & Svoboda.

A new federal lawsuit filed by a former employee suggests they were only scratching the surface.

The suit was filed by Portland attorney Craig Crispin on behalf of Tywan Brown, a former employee on the Ross Island Bridge painting project. The 14-page legal complaint, filed June 30 in U.S. District Court, accuses the company of extreme race and gender discrimination, and retaliating for making a safety complaint.

According to the suit, Brown’s experience at Abhe & Svoboda began with broken promises. A resident of Virginia, she responded to an ad on Craigslist to work on the Ross Island Bridge project in Portland. Abhe & Svoboda offered her a position as a sandblaster and promised to pay her moving expenses. When she arrived in Portland, the company put her to work as a painter instead, and reimbursed her for only one-fourth of her moving expenses, promising to pay the rest after she’d worked there a year. She didn’t last that long.

Soon after she began, a co-worker allegedly began subjecting her to unwanted sexual advances. On one occasion, he cornered her in a shed at work and said he wouldn’t let her out unless she performed oral sex on him; he backed down when she threatened to call police. When she complained to the company project manager, the manager immediately told the perpetrator that she had complained about him; the co-worker yelled at her and threatened her. When she reported that to the project manager, he told her to apologize to the offending co-worker and avoid him in the future by staying on the other side of the bridge. Brown provided a written statement to management about the incident, but the witnesses she named were never interviewed by the company.

The lawsuit further states that on Dec. 7, 2016, Brown injured her hand and arm on the job, and promptly reported it to management. The project manager drove her to a company doctor, accompanied her to the examining room, and participated in the medical exam, interacting with the doctor and interfering with Brown’s account of the injury. He or a company safety officer also sat in on all subsequent appointments with the doctor. As a result, the lawsuit says, Brown felt intimidated and unable to freely express herself to the doctor about her injuries.

The doctor put her on light duty, but the suit says Abhe & Svoboda failed to honor the restrictions, ordering her to perform work the doctor had warned against. Managers questioned her injury, and made light of it.

Brown, who is African-American, alleges in the suit that the company allowed co-workers to verbally harass her, referring to her as an “African monkey” and using the ‘n word.’

Her complaints about it to management were ignored. The suit also alleges that African American workers were the first to have shifts cut when work slowed, and the last to be called back when work was available. When Brown or another African-American co-worker were injured on the job, company representatives told them not to seek medical care or file a claim, but when Latino employees were injured, they were immediately taken for medical care and given time off, the suit alleges.

In January, Brown filed an anonymous complaint with Oregon OSHA about unsafe conditions on the bridge painting project. That resulted in an inspection. On Feb. 2, management accused her of making the OSHA complaint, and terminated her. This is the same company that Oregon OSHA fined $189,000 last month for multiple serious and willful safety violations that contributed to a near-fatal 37-foot fall.

The suit seeks a jury trial. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Anna J. Brown.

Neither Tywan Brown nor Abhe & Svoboda responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

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