Undocumented worker Leticia Zuniga was allegedly sexually harassed and eventually raped by her boss at a shopping mall over and over again; she came to the U.S. illegally and was thus the perfect victim, guaranteed to stay silent. Except she didn't.
This lengthy City Pages account of Zuniga's case against her boss, Marco Gonzalez, and her larger employer, Service Management Systems, a massive subcontractor that presides over thousands of mall-cleaning employees around the country (making it that much harder for employees to get justice) is devastating, even though it has a happy ending:
Gonzalez knew Zuniga's family. He walked around the mall with her husband on breaks; Zuniga had sold Avon products to his wife.
He knew that the immigration documents she had shown him were fakes — that she had come here illegally — and that she worried about being discovered. He knew that she had two sons who had been born in Minneapolis, ages 8 and 10, and that she feared having to leave them if she was deported.
Gonzalez knew this, and he used it. After the first assault, he pulled her aside one day.
"'If you ever tell anyone,'" she remembers him saying, "'I'll report you to immigration.'"
Zuniga would've had a next-to-impossible time reporting sexual assault even if she hadn't been undocumented, since her workplace gave no fucks re: educating employers about their rights:
SMS argued that, "irrespective of the heinous nature of [Zuniga's] allegations," she didn't have a case: "She failed to complain or otherwise inform anyone of the alleged assaults or any untoward behavior by Marco Gonzalez during her employment at SMS."
The argument is based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that incentivizes employers to take steps that minimize the risks of sexual harassment. If the employer can prove that it has policies and practices in place to "prevent and correct" harassment, and that the employee "unreasonably" failed to use those policies, then the employer's off the hook for any liability.
But Zuniga countered that taking advantage of SMS's policy was impossible. SMS might have had the bare bones of a sexual harassment policy, but the company didn't create a practice that allowed employees to actually use it. While there was a section on sexual harassment in the employee handbook, that section didn't explain how employees could or should report abuses — or include a measure to protect employees who did find a way to alert the company.
As far as the term "sexual harassment" itself, Zuniga had never heard it. There was no harassment training for employees, and even for managers like Gonzalez, it was optional. No record shows that he ever received any.
Because Zuniga didn't report Gonzalez immediately — she had to devise a plan to get a special visa for victims of crimes as well as muster the courage to publicly accuse such a manipulative monster — her case was tough, and ended in a settlement rather than a trial. But SMS agreed to make major changes to its national policies (we'll see if they actually implement them) and Zuniga is now a role model for marginalized workers across the country. Next month, she'll receive the "Courageous Plaintiff" award from the National Employment Lawyers Association for showing "that it is possible for an undocumented worker to win a lawsuit against a big corporation."
The only unique aspect of Zuniga's story is that she was brave enough to report it. A recent Dissent article included this charming anecdote where workers without papers were being similarly threatened in inhumane ways:
Workers say they were called into a mandatory meeting where LeBlanc told them that if any of them got him in trouble, he wouldn’t just get them deported forever. He would send armed men to assault their families back in Mexico.
But Zuniga's story is too inspiring to end on a bummer note, so read the entire article and wish her all the awards — and, more importantly, worker's rights, since she's still working for a cleaning subcontractor — in the world.
Image via Marcin Balcerzak/Shutterstock.