He Said, She Said

A county worker levels a charge of sexual harassment. Her employer is disciplined. Nobody is satisfied.

But in interviews with Affirmative Action investigator Juan de Ona, several of Ferrer's co-workers backed up her story. One longtime CAA employee, Sonnia Gonzalez, referred to Olivero as "chauvinistic" and "a female-harasser," according to a report later compiled by De Ona. Gonzalez, who declined to comment for this article, also told De Ona that she had informed Escand centsn about Olivero's behavior, but that the facilities management director had sided with Olivero. (Escand centsn says he didn't hear that anything was amiss until January 19, when Martha Ayerdis handed him a long memo, walked out of the office, and never came back. At that time, he claims, he initiated his own investigation but found no evidence that Olivero had behaved improperly.)

In his March 3 report, De Ona concluded that Odis Olivero's conduct toward Martha Ayerdis had been "inappropriate and unprofessional" but that it did not constitute sexual harassment. Not so with Nicole Ferrer, whose experiences only came to official light via Ayerdis's complaint. De Ona found that Olivero had sexually harassed Ferrer and he also questioned Harry Escand centsn's failure to investigate thoroughly after hearing employees' complaints about Olivero.

After receiving the Affirmative Action report, Dorothy Davis, executive director of the CAA, suspended Olivero for five days without pay (he returned to work March 31). Further, she ordered that his job performance be monitored for three months and that he enroll in one of the county's supervisory training courses, which include sex-harassment education. Harry Escand centsn was ordered by Davis to receive formal counseling, which would be noted in his personnel file.

Olivero acknowledges that he has lost his temper on occasion. The catalysts, he claims, were due to his frustration at having to work with underqualified clerks, as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which resulted in a leap in workload, a $2.6 million influx of federal Community Service Block Grant funds, and 56 extra employees under his supervision. (The facilities management unit is responsible for maintaining the county's Head Start centers and for implementing federally funded programs to renovate and repair low-income homes.) According to Olivero, he often had to correct Martha Ayerdis's mistakes, and she was inaccurate in administering the department's payroll. He adds that he has conferred with an attorney about the best way to fight the finding of sexual harassment. "Probably I'm guilty of pressing people into doing work," he asserts. "Sexual harassment, never."

"If he does anything that can be construed as retaliation, he's gone," says De Ona, whose agency had recommended that Olivero be treated "in accordance with the county's progressive discipline rules." Adds the Affirmative Action investigator: "This is the toughest, harshest penalty below termination."

As of March 24 Martha Ayerdis was to return to her old job at CAA, under a different supervisor but in the office where Olivero works. She says she can't ever go back. While she waits to see if Work-King can find another position that suits her qualifications, Ayerdis says she is looking for a new employer. Like her old boss, she, too, has contacted a lawyer and is considering filing a civil discrimination lawsuit. "This has been a disaster for me," says Ayerdis. "But still my aggressor remains in his same job. I am looking for justice."

Elizabeth du Fresne, a Miami attorney who pioneered sexual harassment litigation in Florida, is unfamiliar with Ayerdis's complaint but says that applying the law to such cases is a complex matter, which often hangs on whether the accuser can convince a judge and jury. "A lot of these cases are not black-and-white but gray," explains Du Fresne, who now educates corporate clients in the subtleties of making their workplaces harassment-free. "Calls vary from workplace to workplace and sensitivity to sensitivity. If it's verbal and the first offense, most of the time you don't fire the person. On the other hand, if it's touching or a deeply offensive comment A if you had someone particularly sensitive and [the employer] knew it A I may well say they should be fired on the spot."

Affirmative Action chief Marcia Saunders says the county doesn't plan to inform Nicole Ferrer about the outcome of Ayerdis's complaint. "What the law requires for us to do when we know [sexual harassment has occurred] is to do something about it," says Saunders. "We do training to prevent it happening again. We provide some sanction to the offending party. We did that as quickly as we could."

Ferrer, who now works in Toledo as a clerk for Lucas County, Ohio, is disappointed that no one from the county got back to her after she was interviewed. "They told me they were sorry that this might have happened to me," she recalls with some indignation, "and that they'd be getting in contact with me to let me know how things progressed."

Although the finding of sexual harassment would likely provide strong support should Ferrer file suit in civil court, she says she has no plans to pursue the matter. She does, however, make it clear that she doesn't believe justice A in many ways a concept as elusive as sexual harassment A has been served. "I don't understand why me and not Martha," says Ferrer. "I want for them to either fire [Olivero] or do something that's fair."

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