Local/State

UNC housekeeper wins sexual harassment lawsuit

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill has won a major victory in her sexual harassment claim.

A judge ruled last week that UNC failed to protect Isabel Prudencio-Arias.

"The first thing I had to do was endure my supervisor accosting me," said Prudencio-Arias.

She described the alleged cutting looks, sexual groping and verbal threats from her supervisor after she started working as a housekeeper at UNC seven years ago.

"He was always saying obscene things to me," she said. "He would do gestures with his face, with his tongue saying things like 'I want to lick you.'"

The alleged actions against the former supervisor were only part of the story spelled out in a judge's ruling that said the university failed to protect Prudencio-Arias from sexual harassment.

After Prudencio-Arias produced proof with the help of a co-worker and a hidden tape recorder, the university fired the supervisor.

Isabel won a complaint in 2010, but what happened next made life even more difficult. Her legal assistant, Maria Palmer, said when Prudencio-Arias suffered an on-the-job injury the same year as the complaint, the former house keeping director, Bill Burston, gave her a tougher assignment.

"She has really gone through hell for several years," said Palmer.

Isabel's lawsuit says "Burston's harassment was unwelcome, hostile, and sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive working environment. "

It also says "She took leave from work, and received professional therapy to deal with her emotional pain and distress."

Last Friday, a judge ruled in Prudencio-Arias' favor and awarded her attorney's fees.

Burston has since resigned, but Prudencio-Arias still works for the university with her dignity intact. She has a message for others who find themselves in a similar situation.

"Don't let anyone humiliate you, don't accept blackmail just for a job," she said.

The judge's ruling comes as UNC deals with other complaints about how it handles sexual harassment and assaults. In this case, the state's Personnel Commission has to sign off on the ruling.

Prudencio-Arias' lawyer plans to seek more damages to cover medical costs.

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