Economy

After Employee Complained Of Sexual Harassment, T-Mobile Told Her To Keep It Quiet

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

T-Mobile CEO John Legere

Angela Agganis felt uncomfortable with her new supervisor before she even started working with him.

Agganis loved her job as a customer service representative for T-Mobile in Oakland, Maine, where she worked for eight years. It was a hard job, dealing with a constant stream of incoming calls from mostly unhappy customers, but she was proud of how far she had gotten and of becoming one of the top-rated employees.

But things started to change after she was assigned to a new supervisor. In March of 2014, she was assigned to work under Gary Rochon. Before she even got a chance to work with him, on a break outside with coworkers, she said a fellow female employee told her she had to be careful about Rochon and that “he’s bad with women.” But she tried to shrug it off.

A month after he started supervising her, Rochon began giving her special attention and trying to mentor her. One day, he said he would show her how to do something on the computer. She said Rochon sat on the desk next to her, with his crotch close to her face, leaned over her, and put his hand on hers, guiding the mouse. The incident violated one of T-Mobile’s rules against supervisors touching employees, although she wasn’t sure whether it was inappropriate or not. Then the same thing happened again a couple of months later, she said. “At that point I was like, ‘Yeah, he is creepy and he is touching me inappropriately,'” she said. “I definitely started to get uncomfortable at that point.”

Touching escalated to massages, Agganis said, first on a female coworker while in her presence and then on her own shoulders. She said she made it clear she wasn’t enjoying it, only to be brought into a one-on-one meeting with him a week later and be told that he could write her up for a metric that was slightly above target — something she said she had never been told mattered for pay or promotions — but “I wouldn’t do that to you, Angela.” She noted, “I was clearly receiving the message that if I had a problem with him touching me, he would find something to write me up for.” That would mean losing out on any bonus pay or advancement for three months, jeopardizing the work she had done to get ahead. “I felt that was a very thinly veiled threat.”

She eventually learned that before coming to T-Mobile, Rochon had lost his medical license in Wisconsin for having sex with a patient and was reportedly fired from his next job in Maine for sexually harassing a female coworker. After more discomfort — and a full-blown panic attack, she said — she eventually went to human resources in August. But things didn’t get any better once she decided to take action. In fact, they just got worse.

The HR representative told her that the company would begin an investigation, but first she had to sign a waiver. That included a provision that barred Agganis from talking about what happened to her. “If I talked about this with anyone, my coworkers, then I could be subject to disciplinary action up until termination,” she said. Rather than sign, she quit. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

“I felt like my company felt like I was worthless,” she said.

A year later, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ruled that such a policy violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). But the company was only ordered to rescind the policy in Maine, where Agganis worked, and South Carolina, where a similar incident occurred. Now Agganis is fighting to get the company to rid itself of the silencing policy in all of its workplaces. She’s suing the company over what happened to her. She has also started two different petitions demanding the company change its policies, and 15,000 signatures were delivered to the company’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington on Wednesday afternoon.

“I really think major reform has to happen at T-Mobile,” Agganis said. “Human resources should not be a department that’s designed to protect the company, HR is supposed to be a department where employees can go for help and protection. And that’s not the case.”

T-Mobile has come under fire for other policies. Earlier this year, a different NLRB judge ruled that it had violated labor laws by prohibiting employees from talking about wages with each other through its employee policies, something that’s against the NLRA.

And it’s far from the only place where women have been harassed by their coworkers. In a 2013 survey, one in five women said they had been sexually harassed by a superior at work, while one in four said they suffered it at the hands of a coworker. But these cases have become harder to win after recent Supreme Court decisions making it more difficult to prove.

While she waits for her lawsuit and petitions to play out, life has been tough for Agganis. “It’s been a really difficult year” since she left T-Mobile, she said. She’s gone through a number of jobs, none of which worked out for the long term: at a call center for a smoke detector company, at an Indian restaurant, at a pizza place. She’s been unemployed since April of this year, applying to jobs but with nothing turning up. “I had to go to a food bank for the first time in my whole life this past winter,” she said. “I never had to do that. It was pretty humbling.” She might even have to leave her home with her boyfriend and pets in Maine and move back in with her parents in Massachusetts if she can’t find a job soon.

She said coworkers have told her that Rochon had been asked to resign shortly after Agganis went public with her complaint. “That’s good, but it took over a year,” she noted. “A little too late.”