Women in construction shine light on sexual harassment, assault in the industry

Tierra Williams is one of 18 employees who won a $1.5 million settlement against a subcontractor. She says she faced aggressive sexual harassment daily and that she was fired when she complained.
7:14 | 08/07/20

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Transcript for Women in construction shine light on sexual harassment, assault in the industry
I hated going to work. I hated passing all the men. I endured slurs about me like you're sexy, you look really good. Why aren't your pants tighter? I was told women didn't belong on the construction site. Reporter: Tee tiara Williams says she was harassed not only by colleagues but by superiors. I had to endure sexual harassment every day. I woke up sad and depressed that I had to woman here every day and passed by these men that completely violated everything that was my right as a human being, even fully clothed in front of them I felt naked. Reporter: As a single mom, $15 an hour represented the highest-paying job she'd ever had, an opportunity to provide for her 6-year-old son. On the construction site, tiara and a few other women held the lowest-ranks and lowest-paying jobs. It was horrible, not just for me but for all the women. We always felt like someone was staring at our female body parts. Reporter: You were objectified, it sounds like. Mm-hm. Reporter: And comments, gestures? All types of comments and gestures. And when you didn't respond to them properly you were called like a , whore, slut. Reporter: The construction industry has the second-highest rate of sexual harassment in the workforce, according to the bureau of labor statistics, and yet tiara feels left out of the me too movement, saying blue collar workers like her and her co-workers, all women of color, were missed by the headlines. On some level were your stories are a recognition that sexual harassment has to do with power and not just glamorous women in ball gowns. There's no me too movement for us. We're just women in construction. We do labor work. We get dirty like everyone else. I just think they think we're low budget, so we don't matter. Reporter: After nearly two years of what tiara says was daily sexual harassment she reported to her supervisors, two days later she was out of a job. I got a call saying I was being fired for insubordination and time stealing. I've never been written up on the job. I've never had any verbal warnings or anything before then. Reporter: So you felt it was retaliation. I knew it was retaliation. Reporter: Tiara felt powerless. At the time, she didn't belong to a union. In fact, tradeoff, the company she worked for, specializes in providing non-union labor to construction sites. But local 79 heard of her story and connected her to a lawyer and she decided to fight back. How would you characterize the culture at tradeoff? It was the wild west, no training, no complaint procedure, no supervision. Reporter: Jason represents tiara and four other women who sued tradeoff for sexual harassment. They're told that they're not valuable as construction workers. They're only valuable as sexual objects. The harassment ranged from requests for sexual favors in exchange for benefits, like overtime to physical groping and unwelcome contact, sending sexually explicit photos, physical violence, to retaliating against people when they did complain. Reporter: Tiara was one of the first women to come forward about the company. We met her in 2019, when she was just beginning to find her New York City is a union town! Reporter: Tiara, and eventually more than a dozen other women's allegations, were brought to the attention of new York's first female elected attorney general. She's a hero, she stood up and joined with others and realized that she would not be a victim but in fact a survivor. Reporter: The attorney general's 17-month long investigation found a pattern of severe sexual harassment over four years. Including solicitation of sexual favors by supervisors and the firing of at least 12 women after they complained about sexual harassment. The result, a stunning landmark settlement last month for women in construction. Tradeoff settling with 18 former employees to the tune of $1.5 million. What message do you think it sends to workers out there of all stripes, who feel like they're in an all-boys club, in a male-dominated environment, where they have no voice? Sends a strong message. Not only to tradeoff, but to other construction sites, that they have to get their business in order, adopt a sexual harassment policy and cannot tolerate sexual harassment of any kind. It is unacceptable. Reporter: In their settlement, tradeoff has denied all of the findings, saying they believe they were driven by a long-lasting dispute with the union. But also adding, tradeoff considers any level of harassment to be unacceptable and deeply regrets that our processes for training and oversight failed some of the women who worked for us. We've acknowledged those deficiencies and pledge to greatly improve them. Notably, part of the settlement requires an independent monitor for three years. Why is it important for you to have eyes on those? Because I don't trust them, and it's important. It's important, again, that we verify. Reporter: This is the first settlement in the ag's office with a construction company. Mm-hm. Reporter: What goes through your mind? My son thinks I'm a rock star right now, and I'm really excited about that. Reporter: For tiara, the settlement has emboldened her crusade. She now works as an organizer for that same union that helped her. One she considers a game changer for women. Thank you very much. No problem. If you ever have anything, call me, even if you're off work and I'm off work. Workers united will never be Reporter: She repeatedly refused to sign non-disclosure agreements so she could continue to speak out. Organizing her first rally just last week. I never want to feel what I felt before. From low wages to no benefits to sexual harassment. Reporter: Across New York City wherever tiara went, we noticed she got stopped on the street by strangers. I've worked in a lot of different fields, and sexual harassment is real. Like I shouldn't have to play with you to get the same pay. I've been through it, I went from non-union to working union. I'm not afraid to tell my story anymore. That's what makes me good at my job.

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