It was only after Laterrica Perry had gone on medical leave for the trauma she said she experienced from her supervisor's sexual advances and subsequent retaliation that she reported the harassment to Comcast, her employer.
But, looking back, she said, the reporting process was another form of torment.
Perry, 30, is one of six women who, over the last 15 years, worked at Comcast call centers that they described as having a workplace culture that allows staffers to make comments about coworkers' bodies, discuss their sex lives in graphic detail, and touch colleagues inappropriately.
Three of those women, including Perry, are traveling to Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia this week to present a petition to the company that demands it investigate sexual harassment at its call centers and enforce a reporting process that protects employees who come forward. More than 4,000 people, including those who identify as former or current Comcast employees and customers, have signed the petition, started by former D.C.-area call center worker Rylinda Rhodes, who has filed a lawsuit against Comcast.
Comcast requires new employees to participate in online, sexual-harassment training and to repeat it every few years.
"We have strong policies against sexual and other forms of harassment and encourage employees to report any harassing behavior without fear of retaliation," Jenni Moyer, senior director of corporate communications at Comcast, wrote in a statement. "Any allegation of harassment is taken very seriously and investigated thoroughly."
Seventy percent of workers who experience harassment do not report it to their employer, Chai Feldblum, a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said in 2017.
Perry and Rhodes made a different choice, but their accounts, below, composed from interviews with the two women and Rhodes' lawsuit, offer a window into a process that can be convoluted and counterproductive — and shows how, even if action is taken against a harasser, it's difficult to right the damage that's already been done. Comcast declined to comment on most details of their stories, citing personnel issues and the open lawsuit.
‘Everything had come back to me’
Perry was a sales rep, selling cable TV, internet, and home security door-to-door in Memphis, Tenn., when her supervisor started hitting on her — asking her out, offering to buy her lingerie, and making inappropriate sexual jokes. When she rejected him, she said, he assigned her to a less lucrative sales territory and denied her sick time.
Eventually, she took medical leave. Although she was working through details with her insurer, her supervisor and staff from human resources kept calling and e-mailing her, asking her when she would return to work. Eventually Comcast told that her leave had been denied. Afraid she would be fired, Perry says she decided to report the harassment.
Perry didn't feel comfortable talking directly to management or HR, so in July 2017, she logged in to the "Comcast Listens" portal, a hotline managed by a third-party that allows employees to report personnel issues — anonymously, if they want, which is what Perry did — and track updates or responses.
A day or two later, an HR representative asked Perry to call her. Perry did, and halfway through telling her story, the woman asked to schedule another time to talk to Perry because of another call.
That was a Friday.
By Monday, "everything had come back to me," said Perry.
She was on leave, so her coworkers were texting and calling her. They said her supervisor was telling people in the office that she was lying about him. People were showing each other a photo of Perry — she thinks maybe it was from Facebook, and saying, "This is the woman they're talking about."
"That's when I lost trust in Comcast resolving it," she said.
Afterward, she reported the harassment to the EEOC, and she said the case went straight to mediation. The parties weren't able to come to an agreement, but in October, three months after her original complaint to "Comcast Listens," her supervisor was fired.
Comcast confirmed that Perry's supervisor was put on administrative leave and eventually fired, following an investigation.
In April, Perry received a letter from Comcast saying that because she could not return to work for health reasons, they would begin the "administrative separation" process. The letter specified she had five days to discuss the issue with Comcast. Despite multiple calls and e-mails, she said, she wasn't able to get the designated Comcast staffer on the phone before her "separation" date. She's currently unemployed.
‘Here comes Rylinda’
Rhodes, 47, a former dispatcher who took customer calls and arranged schedules of technicians, had been reporting inappropriate behavior at her offices in Silver Spring, Md., and Millersville, Md. — graphic conversations about sex, foul language — to her supervisors and an HR rep for two years, although, after some call centers were consolidated, there wasn't always an HR presence on site. Rhodes said both management and HR would tell her that she was too sensitive or that people were just set in their ways. Coworkers who found out about her reports said things like: "Here comes Rylinda. Better watch what you say or she'll have you in HR."
One incident she never reported — she said she was too ashamed and embarrassed — was when a coworker had grabbed her breasts. The trauma forced her to take short-term disability. But when that expired and she would have to return to the office — and her harasser — in May 2012, she knew she had to speak up, she said.
To report the harassment, Rhodes scheduled an appointment with a human resources director. She asked to be relocated. He directed her to another HR staffer in a different office in Elkridge, Md., where she explained her situation again.
This time, Rhodes said, the HR staffer promised her that the workplace culture would improve and that she would open up a formal investigation. A few days later, the HR staffer called, offering her a job in Richmond. But Richmond was two hours away from D.C., where Rhodes lives. She asked for assistance in relocating, but she said Comcast refused.
"I couldn't do it because I didn't have any money," she said.
Comcast also told her she could apply for other jobs, which she did, but she got denied for all of them.
Rhodes was eventually fired because she would not return to work in the Millersville office.