Latina Workers at New York Discount Stores Were Sexually Harassed, Exploited By Owner, ACLU Charges

May 13, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced shocking charges in a federal lawsuit against the owner and operator of three retail stores in upper Manhattan who repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted his Latina employees, forced them to work 10-hour days for as little as $30, and used one of them as his private maid service.

“Our clients lived through a nightmare of sexual and wage exploitation, the same nightmare that is unfortunately the fate of many immigrant women in New York and elsewhere,” said Jennifer Arnett, a staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

“Many immigrant women work in highly exploitative situations out of pure economic necessity, a fact that ruthless employers take advantage of,” Arnett explained. “These workers are fearful of coming forward because they are often told that immigrants have no rights in this country, and they cannot afford to lose the one source of income they have.”

The complaint, filed in federal court in New York, includes charges of sexual assault and harassment, unpaid wages and other labor law violations, gender-motivated violence, and false imprisonment.

The ACLU, along with the law firm Outten & Golden, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Deyanira Espinal, 37; Angela Berise Fritman Peralta, 22; and Maria Araceli Gonzales Flores, 22. All three women live in New York; two are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and one is from Mexico. The defendant in the case is Albert Palacci, the owner of Ramco and National Discount Stores located at 190-192 Dyckman Street in upper Manhattan.

Each of the women worked as cashiers and general assistants at Ramco and National Discount for periods of three months to two years. During that time, they experienced severe sexual harassment, including demands for sex in exchange for raises, and physical assault and retaliation when the demands were rejected. All of the women were forced to work six and at times seven days a week for as little as $30-40 a day, and one was forced to cook, shop and clean for Palacci in his home.

On one occasion, according to the complaint, Palacci took Peralta and Espinal to his home, ostensibly to clean his house. He then locked the door, stripped, and demanded sexual favors. When the women refused, Palacci physically attacked them. In retaliation for their rejections, Palacci later reduced their work hours and treated them with increased hostility.

Palacci also kept a bed in the basement of one of his stores and told the women it was there so that he could have sex with them. He also told the women that he hated Dominicans, and that they were “trash, thieves, and shit,” the ACLU complaint said.

The complaint seeks compensation for unpaid wages on behalf of the three women and all current and former employees of the stores; punitive damages against Palacci, and a court order prohibiting Palacci, as the stores’ owner, from discriminating or retaliating against employees or job applicants because of their gender or their refusal to submit to his demands.

In addition to filing a legal complaint, the ACLU filed federal charges of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In a novel approach, the ACLU complaint also invokes a new provision of the New York City Human Rights Law that provides a remedy for victims of gender-motivated violence. This law permits victims of sexual assault or other gender-based crimes to file civil actions and obtain money damages from their assailants.

Today’s case is one of several sex discrimination and wage violation cases filed by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project on behalf of immigrant women workers who labor in hotels, restaurants, retail stores, sweatshops and other service industries around the country.

“By exposing illegal gender discrimination and economic exploitation in cases like these, we hope to encourage more women to come forward and assert their rights,” said Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. Lapidus said the ACLU also plans grassroots efforts with community groups in the New York area to inform immigrant women workers of their rights and encourage them to take action against illegal employment practices.

The ACLU recently began distributing brochures on “The Rights of Women Workers” in English and Spanish. “Brochures specific to New York were also created because of the widespread exploitation of immigrants in the region,” Lapidus said. They are available online at /womensrights/relatedinformation_legal_documents.html

The complaint is online at /node/35099

Affidavits of the three complainants are online at /node/22332

Attorneys in the case are Lapidus and Arnett of the ACLU, and Kathleen Peratis, Justin M. Swartz and Linda A. Neilan of the New York law firm Outten and Golden.

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