CHICAGO – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has won a settlement on behalf of a former Costco employee who alleged her employer had not done enough to protect her from a customer who allegedly stalked and harassed her while at work.
The decision should serve as a "wake-up call" for employers concerned about stepping on the toes of customers who may make their employees feel unsafe, said a Chicago employment lawyer.
A federal jury in the Northern District of Illinois found unanimously against Costco and awarded the employee $250,000 in compensatory damages after the company failed to intervene when the employee was allegedly being stalked and harassed by a customer.
“There’s been a trend in law requiring employers to protect their employees,” Arthur Ehrlich, a lawyer with the firm of Goldman and Ehrlich, who practices in employment law, told the Cook County Record. “Now it’s gone to employers protecting their employees from customers.”
The former employee, Dawn Suppo, complained that a customer was following her around the store and touching her. When her managers were informed about what was going on, the only action they allegedly took was to tell the customer to leave.
Suppo was forced to get a restraining order against the customer. She went on medical leave and was terminated after she didn’t return to work.
The EEOC then stepped in on behalf of Suppo.
On May 31, 2013, the EEOC attempted to reconcile the situation between Suppo and Costco out of the courtroom. According to the complaint, “the Commission determined that it was unable to eliminate the unlawful employment practices alleged below by informal methods of conciliation, conference, and persuasion, and concluded those efforts.”
On Aug. 25, 2014, the EEOC filed a complaint claiming Costco violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by not protecting Suppo from sexual harassment.
Ehrlich said such cases could leave employers in a dilemma.
“When it comes to customers, employers make a business decision,” Ehrlich said.
By taking action against a customer or telling them to leave, employers risks losing business.
But Ehrlich warned companies against ignoring employee complaints and concerns to prevent confrontation with customers.
“Once the employer is aware, they must take action,” Ehrlich said.
The case was heard by U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo in Chicago.
"It sends a clear message to employers that they cannot sit idly by when their employees are harassed in the workplace," John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the Chicago District Office of the EEOC, said in a prepared statement. "This case is an important reminder that employers have a duty to protect employees from harassment by customers."
Ehrlich agreed that, although this was “not a ground-shaking decision,” it should serve as a wake-up call to employers to be more vigilant.
Ehrlich said he also believes this and cases like it could lead to employers in certain industries, such as companies who require drivers to drive in unsafe areas, to become more protective of their employees.