Tatiana Swiderski, a former Urban Outfitters employee, is suing the company for allegedly mishandling her complaints of a sexual assault and sexual harassment from customers in the store.
She began working at a New York City location in September. In one incident in November, she says that the store’s security guards did nothing when a customer grabbed her lip, saying he wanted to “see her teeth,” licked her cheek, and then grabbed her dress while trying to pull her chest out of it. After she ran, the guards escorted the assailant out of the store, but they refused to call the police. “I felt traumatized,” she told the New York Daily News.
The sexual assault came just two weeks after security told her a man had been following her and another employee with a video camera and shooting up their skirts as they went up the stairs. While the guards made him erase the video, they let him go and refused to call the police or tell her his name so she could do so. Her suit even claims that a guard mocked her.
After she complained to management, a security guard allegedly told her to “stop being a stupid bitch.” She also claims that a guard began patting her down as she left work, something she felt was sexually inappropriate and not done to other employees. On top of all that, she also says the company stuck her in the stock room as retaliation for her complaints. “I felt I was being punished,” she said. “They made it their mission to make me feel invalidated.”
She quit a few weeks later. She’s now suing the company for sexual harassment and retaliation, seeking unspecified monetary damages.
The company has issued a statement saying that it “abhors unlawful discrimination and harassment and has policies which prohibit such conduct in the workplace. The Company takes these matters very seriously and is currently investigating the allegations made in the complaint.”
Sexual harassment in the workplace is unfortunately relatively common: one in four women report being harassed by a coworker, and one in five by a superior. There were over 11,000 charges filed against employers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Fair Employment Practices agencies in 2011, but that’s an undercount since 70 percent of people who say they’ve experienced harassment don’t report it.
Those in retail may face even more difficult situations. A 2002 study in Canada found that harassment for these workers doesn’t just come from coworkers, but from customers, as it did for Swiderski, which constitutes a “significant problem.” A majority of women in retail said they had been sexually harassed by customers on the job, but given that companies are focused on satisfying the customer, women face constraints in how they can handle it and many are reluctant to bring it up.
Examples of sexual harassment in retail abound. A class action lawsuit against the country’s largest jeweler alleged not just widespread gender discrimination in pay and promotions, but at least six incidents of sexual harassment. Walmart recently settled a case, while one was brought against Starbucks in May and another was brought against an upscale handbag company. That’s just a sampling of recent cases, with many more likely filed against retail employers.