No Day at the Beach for Chicago Lifeguards Who Faced Sexual Harassment

No Day at the Beach for Chicago Lifeguards Who Faced Sexual Harassment

Photo by R Boed

The Chicago Park District has vowed to “root out and destroy” a widespread tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender violence among the District’s lifeguard staff. Michael Kelly, the superintendent of the Chicago Park District, resigned October 9, 2021 after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for his termination as a result of the District’s slow response to allegations of widespread sexual harassment extending back decades. Retired city commissioner Rosa Escareño has taken over as interim superintendent.

In February 2020, a female lifeguard sent an 11-page report to Michael Kelly detailing how, in the summer of 2019, her supervisor had pushed her into a wall, called her profane and sexually degrading names, and was left alone for hours at her post because she would not join her colleagues in drinking and using drugs on the job. District rules called for immediate referral to the Office of the Inspector General and Kelly made an explicit promise to the whistleblower to do so. However, Kelly kept the matter internal for 41 days, giving it to his managers to investigate. It was not until Mayor Lightfoot forwarded a second letter from a former lifeguard who described sexual assault and attempted rape when she was 16 that Kelly finally reported the complaints to the OIG.

The OIG launched a secret investigation in spring 2020, which quickly found credible evidence that dozens of workers were regularly committing “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence and other criminal acts.” The inquiry found that cursory sexual harassment training was conducted by the same managers who harassed the lifeguards. Lifeguards described daily sexual harassment and battery and frequent sexual assaults at the City’s 23 beaches and 100 pools. Complaints about sexual misconduct were met with indifference and inaction from the District.

The misconduct was blatant and egregious: male supervisors subjected younger, female lifeguards to daily gropings, including the “reach around” where men would grab women’s genitals. On “sexual harassment Saturdays” male supervisors slapped female lifeguards on the buttocks and sunburned parts of their bodies. The end-of-summer banquets featured drunken supervisors giving “awards” for “B**** of the Beach” and “Slut of the Beach” to junior lifeguards.

Having a workforce in which female lifeguards report to male supervisors who wield absolute power contributes to a culture of workplace sexual harassment. The 1975 District lifeguard manual, which is still in force, states: “The Captain and Mate are absolute law on the beach—the Mate an absolute authority when the Captain is not present.” Women were expected to submit to male leaders, with harassment and degradation as conditions of employment. Male supervisors punished women who resisted harassment by assigning them to long shifts in rowboats on the lake, known as “rotting.” On the rare occasions female lifeguards reported sexual misconduct, they suffered retaliation in the form of reassignment or termination. A code of silence protected abusers; they were not disciplined.

The District knew about and tolerated sexual misconduct for decades. The self-published memoir of Joseph Pecoraro, a former District department head, described commonplace sexual harassment. “At North Avenue and several of the major locations, the girls would chase the boys out of the showers and leave one girl standing guard while the others showered.” Now, District Board president Avis LaVelle has expressed her commitment to dismantling “this frat boy culture that has been allowed to flourish here for too long.”

Since the investigation launched, 42 employees have been disciplined. Two top managers were suspended without pay and the District’s deputy inspector general was fired. Just days before Michael Kelly resigned, an adult supervisor resigned when the OIG received evidence that he had had an inappropriate relationship with a lifeguard who is a minor. The District created a new Office of Protection dedicated to investigating cases involving harassment, bullying, and workplace hostility.

There is a 300-day statute of limitations on claims for violations of the state and federal anti-discrimination laws. While that period may have expired for many former employees, those who experienced sexual misconduct within the last seven years may be able to assert claims under the Illinois Gender Violence Act.

This scandal at the Park District illustrates the importance of having policies in place to prevent and address sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. While the State of Illinois requires all employers to conduct annual sexual harassment prevention training, that training should be tailored to the audience and the workplace. That training should be especially thorough when minors are part of the workforce.

Any anti-sexual harassment policy should provide clear reporting channels that are accessible and responsive. It is then incumbent upon an employer to take complaints seriously and to investigate them thoroughly. Policy language should also contain explicit consequences for violations.

All employers should assume that sexual harassment will happen in the workplace at some point, and they should have a response plan in place. If the District had provided serious training, enforced strong policies, and conducted a timely investigation, perhaps not so many workers would have suffered for so long.

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