Wisconsin taxpayers in 2014 paid $18,225 to a former state employee who was fired after having trouble coming to work, in part, she says, because of frequent sexual harassment from a co-worker.
The settlement is one of more than two dozen paid in the past decade to current and former state employees who have complained of sexual harassment in the workplace — payouts that amount to at least $1.3 million, according to records released to the Wisconsin State Journal in recent weeks.
The State Journal sought the records in November as state officials’ handling of sexual harassment allegations came under new scrutiny in the wake of dozens of women nationwide publicly accusing powerful men of harassment,sexual misconduct and assault.
In 2014, a former employee of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs received the five-figure settlement after she filed a complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division alleging she was fired for complaining of harassing behavior and discriminated against because of her disability.
According to the female employee’s complaint, her employment was terminated with the department a month after she filed an “informal complaint” with her bosses alleging her co-worker Ric Mathews was creating a hostile work environment by making sexually harassing and discriminatory comments. She said she was fired before her claims were fully investigated.
The former employee also said she was having trouble coming to work because of an undisclosed disability that required her to work an earlier shift than what was assigned to her, and by her father’s cancer diagnosis. The former employee, who was working in probationary status, was fired for absenteeism.
In her complaint, the former employee detailed nine incidents over four months during which Mathews and sometimes others would make inappropriate comments. She said the sexual jokes and innuendos became so pervasive that at one point she “realized I had to watch every word I said because they could make it dirty.”
The comments she reported included calling a female co-worker “unattractive” and saying she was absent from work because “she had a man taking care of her and did not need the money.”
Another time, Mathews allegedly told a female co-worker that he didn’t like wearing a condom during sexual intercourse because it was like “wearing a raincoat when you’re swimming.”
During a third incident after the November 2012 election, the former employee reported Mathews and a co-worker were discussing politicians who were gay and Mathews allegedly said he was “okay” with gay lawmakers “but kissing in public is another thing. I don’t want to see it, they should get a room.” The former employee said she reported this comment to her supervisor.
Mathews also allegedly circulated a cartoon to male and female co-workers that depicted a man asking a department store cashier, “Where are the perineums?” and the cartoon cashier responding with, “Aisle 3. Between the vaginas and the rectums.”
The former employee also said Mathews made a joke comparing beer foam to penises.
The former employee did not return phone calls last week from the State Journal seeking an interview and contact information could not be found for Mathews.
Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for the WDVA, said the department “takes any allegations of harassment seriously” and is “committed to a safe work environment and a culture that is free from discrimination and harassment for all employees.”
Vigue said Mathews is no longer employed with the department and following the allegations, a supervisor “counseled him and gave him work instructions regarding appropriate conduct in the work place.”
Vigue also said then-Secretary John Scocos sent an email to all WDVA employees about his expectation for a respectful workplace and told Mathews to remove offensive materials from his work area. The former employee also was allowed to move to a different work station before she was fired.
In her complaint, the former employee said a human resources official told her the department did not investigate her claims of Mathews creating a hostile environment by making harassing comments because she was not at work.
The subsequent investigation by the DWD Equal Rights Division into her claims also was not completed because the DVA settled with the former employee.