He Said, She Said

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

On January 24, when Martha Ayerdis filed a discrimination grievance with the Dade County Affirmative Action office, she officially entered the murky waters through which sexual harassment allegations run their bureaucratic course. But not even the 39-year-old Ayerdis, who worked as a defense lawyer in her native Nicaragua before escaping the political turmoil and moving to Miami in 1987, could have foreseen the outcome. On March 3 Affirmative Action specialist Juan de Ona found that Odis J. Olivero had indeed sexually harassed an employee under his supervision at the Dade County Community Action Agency (CAA) A only it wasn't Ayerdis.

Unassuming and orderly, Martha Ayerdis shares a small apartment near the airport with her husband Raymundo (also an attorney), her mother, and two daughters. Since moving to Miami she has completed a B.A. in criminal justice at St. Thomas University, but she has so far been unable to find a job in the legal profession. In September of 1992 she began working as a clerk under Olivero in the facilities management unit of the CAA; like many county workers, she was assigned to the position through a temporary employment service, Work-King Inc. And for more than a year, alleged Ayerdis in her complaint, Olivero sexually harassed and verbally abused her. "He would say things like, 'That dress makes you look good,' and, 'Your eyes have a light that excites me,' and that he deserved a wife like me," says Ayerdis, clenching well-manicured fists. "Of course it was usually when no other employee was present. Every time he said these things, I rejected him. But when I did, he would start to make life unbearable at work. He'd yell at me, humiliate me in front of other employees, even violently, to the point of pounding on the desk."

In keeping with her legal training, Ayerdis buttressed the county's grievance form by meticulously detailing her accusations in writing and forwarding letters to County Manager Joaquin Avi*o and Commissioners Alex Penelas and Natacha Millan, as well as to CAA executive director Dorothy Davis and Affirmative Action director Marcia Saunders. She got in touch with current and former CAA employees and asked for their support. Increasingly anxious about the outcome of the Affirmative Action investigation, she also sought psychological help.

Affirmative Action's Juan de Ona interviewed current and former CAA personnel who seemed to corroborate Ayerdis's descriptions of Olivero's angry outbursts. Olivero, a twelve-year county employee with a spotless personnel record, often yelled at his employees, De Ona was told, and Ayerdis was a frequent target; sometimes she would weep as he berated her for turning in work late, for making errors, for her imperfect English, for being incompetent.

When De Ona contacted Javier Casta*o, the CAA temp did far more than back up Ayerdis in an interview. He prepared a four-page statement, signed and notarized. In the affidavit, Casta*o confirmed that he had heard Olivero tell Ayerdis "that she looked sexy or that her dress looked sexy." He had far more to say, though, about Olivero's treatment of two other women who quit after working briefly in the office. In both women's cases, Casta*o stated, Olivero repeatedly "would get so close...as to make [them] uncomfortable.... He would touch them with shoulder, elbow, leg, or whatever...invading [their] personal space." One of the women worked in the office for only a week and has since left the temp agency. The other woman stayed longer, and Casta*o reported that she often complained to him that Olivero was constantly asking her personal questions and inviting her to lunch. On the day he submitted his affidavit, Casta*o resigned.

Nicole Ferrer worked at CAA for three months in early 1993. The 24-year-old U.S. Army vet never lodged a complaint with Affirmative Action, but when Juan de Ona was given her phone number by Martha Ayerdis, Ferrer told the investigator that Olivero's improper advances, coupled with his volatility, had repulsed and frightened her. "I have never worked in a place like that," says Ferrer, who served with her husband in the Persian Gulf War and who was adjusting to civilian life with a young daughter when she was assigned to facilities management. "It was a bad experience. [Olivero] is a very vulgar man. He didn't just do it to me, he did it to everyone. No one, including me, seemed to have the guts to speak up. I just couldn't."

Nicole Ferrer says she brought up the problem with Harry Escand centsn, who as director of the facilities management unit is Olivero's supervisor. "I let him know I was very afraid of Odis Olivero," Ferrer says. "When I told Mr. Escand centsn, he called Odis into the office with me. It was like a joke. He told Odis I was afraid of him. Then when we went back out into the office, all the workers were sitting around, and Odis said in Spanish, 'So you're afraid of me,' in front of everyone. I never said anything back to him after that. I tried to stay in my little corner."

Olivero categorically and forcefully denies making any remarks of a sexual nature to a female employee and says that any touching that took place in the office was accidental. "I have worked with so many young girls who would tell you I would never do such a thing," says the 35-year-old supervisor. "Probably Martha pressed [Ferrer] into saying these things." Olivero also disagrees with Ferrer's assertion that there was a confrontation in the office, and Harry Escand centsn maintains that Ferrer never complained to him about Olivero.

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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