She was the only woman on a six-person team outfitting F-35 fighter pilots at the Marine Corps Air Station. She received high praise from her coworkers and employer.
That all changed for Sara Glass, a Beaufort County resident, with a single word in late July 2015, according to a federal lawsuit.
The lewd word was directed at her by a man on her team, and upon hearing it, she demanded it never be repeated, Glass said in her suit. She complained to a male supervisor on the team, who she alleges responded by snickering and walking away.
From then on, things only got worse for Glass, according to the suit.
Her case is one of three lawsuits that recently made their way to U.S. District Court in South Carolina related to alleged sexual harassment in Beaufort County workplaces. Two of the suits involved Bluffton-area employers.
Though disputed, the claims by Glass and the other local plaintiffs have taken on an uncomfortable familiarity in recent weeks.
Amid an onslaught of sexual harassment or assault allegations against prominent figures – Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, former ABC News political director Mark Halperin, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, among others – similar battles are being fought quietly across America, including in Beaufort County and elsewhere in South Carolina.
Dozens of complaints in SC
There were 159 sexual harassment complaints in South Carolina filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in fiscal 2016, according to data provided by the S.C. Human Affairs Commission, which investigated 56 of the cases. Three of the complaints originated in Beaufort County.
An additional 233 EEOC complaints in South Carolina in fiscal 2016 involved gender discrimination allegations, such as failure to hire, promote or provide equitable pay, records show. Combined with sexual harassment complaints for that year, the total 392 claims represented the single-highest annual number of such cases over a five-year period.
For fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30, the Human Affairs Commission investigated 59 sexual harassment cases, according to records. Typically, the state agency doesn’t substantiate complaints but instead issues “right-to-sue” letters to filers, employment lawyers say.
Online EEOC reports before fiscal 2016 do not distinguish between the number of sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints, or break down totals by county.
“In a roundabout way, it’s all sexual harassment,” said Bluffton attorney and municipal court judge Marshall Horton about the EEOC complaints. “It all comes from the same statute.”
That law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave U.S. workers the ability to file sexual harassment complaints.
“Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in theory, you could say ‘All right, all women are fired today,’” said Horton.
But EEOC complaints don’t tell the full story of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to Terrie Dandy, a program analyst in the EEOC’s Atlanta district office.
“Much harassment goes unreported,” she said.
According to an EEOC task force report from June 2016, an estimated 25 percent to 60 percent of employees have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and roughly three out of four victims didn’t report it.
“Sexual harassment is chronically underreported,” said Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a Columbia-based advocacy group focused on intervention, education and prevention of abuse. “This is especially true in workplace sexual harassment where speaking out can affect your livelihood.”
Beaufort County cases
In her federal lawsuit, which originally was filed in Beaufort County Circuit Court in July of this year, Glass alleged that the harassment she first experienced in 2015 while working on the male-dominated team that outfitted jet fighter pilots at MCAS’ Pilot Fit Facility intensified after her initial complaints to her supervisor.
That included being the brunt of lewd comments “multiple times in front of others,” and an incident in which a male coworker came to her office, took a cookie out of her desk drawer, rubbed it against his crotch and then threw it at her head while screaming vulgarities at her, according to the suit.
At one point, Glass alleged, she felt her life was being threatened. A male coworker started asking another employee to bring a gun to work, telling Glass that he had “bullets with her name on them,” according to the suit.
The male coworker who engaged in much of the harassment was suspended but was allowed to return to work, the suit said.
That prompted the filing of a formal complaint in August 2015 with her employer, Iowa-based Rockwell Collins Inc. Five months later, she was fired, a short time after suffering a “nervous breakdown or emotional distress episode at work due to her continuing fears in the work place,” according to her suit.
Glass alleged in her suit that “multiple senior executives” at Rockwell “cautioned plaintiff and expressed to her that they were not going to allow her to jeopardize their $4.7 million dollar contract with Lockheed Martin, and as a result, she was going to have to tolerate the work place environment to which she had been subjected.”
Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin and other defendants denied the allegations in court papers. Attorneys for the defendants did not return multiple messages seeking comment. Glass and her attorney declined to comment.
Two other recent federal lawsuits involving Beaufort County employers demonstrate the myriad forms that workplace sexual harassment can take.
An ongoing lawsuit initially filed in July 2016 alleges that Tyronne Williams, a former chef at Bluffton nursing home NHC Healthcare, was repeatedly sexually harassed by a female supervisor and later fired after complaining multiple times to management about the matter.
“Men complaining about sexual harassment is actually something that is becoming more and more common,” said Greenville employment lawyer Brian Murphy.
Another suit settled in late June of this year against the Belfair Property Owners Association in Bluffton by former clubhouse manager Stephanie Caddy alleged an affair between a female subordinate and a male supervisor. That affair created a work environment in which Caddy could not advance and was often marginalized, according to the suit.
In both cases, the defendants in court documents denied all claims, and their attorneys either declined comment or did not return calls seeking comment.
Murphy said his law firm deals with workplace sexual harassment claims daily, noting they make up a large part of his caseload.
“The only thing that is changing is the awareness,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are surprised it’s this widespread. Those who are in the business aren’t that surprised.”
Stephanie Lewis, another Greenville employment lawyer, said sexual harassment is a “significant issue in the state of South Carolina,” adding, “I don’t know that ‘common’ would be the right word, but it is an ongoing concern.”
Horton, the Bluffton attorney and municipal judge, agreed that sexual harassment is a serious matter when it happens, but said he hasn’t handled many of those types of lawsuits.
“What I generally see is people coming in who don’t like their job, or who are being fired for some reason or another, and we explore to see whether or not there is a sexual harassment aspect to it,” he said. “More often than not, there is not.”
“It’s not illegal to have a bad job,” Horton continued. “It’s not illegal to have a workplace where people are really nasty. The state of South Carolina and the federal government are not going to use their power to sanction people because they are jerks.”
Lewis said she anticipates an uptick in sexual harassment suits because of the recent rash of allegations against industrial titans, prominent politicians and Hollywood power players. She believes increased employee training is needed to combat harassment in the workplace.
“Some of this is an education and awareness issue, on both sides,” said Lewis. “Some men are struggling with how to interact with women in the workplace so as not to be unfairly accused of misconduct. Some women are struggling with how to report behavior that is genuinely inappropriate.”
While more people are openly discussing sexual harassment in the workplace in the wake of recent national scandals, Barber, of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, wonders how long the attention on the issue will last.
“It seems like we go through waves. Women bare their souls and speak out, and then it goes away,” she said. “I hope that doesn’t happen this time.”