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Mattress Factory settles with women who alleged retaliation for reporting sexual harassment

Natasha Lindstrom
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THE MATTRESS FACTORY
The Mattress Factory contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Acknowledging that its response to sexual harassment allegations was “inadequate,” The Mattress Factory art museum has reached a settlement with a group of former and current employees who accused supervisors of downplaying their concerns and retaliating against them.

The settlement — which includes policy changes and new training requirements — is expected to cap a months-long controversy that spurred both an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board and internal probe by the nonprofit board that oversees the popular museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side.

The museum also plans to hire an in-house human resources officer — a position that it previously “didn’t have and that probably would have mitigated this situation long before it built up to the NLRB complaint,” said museum acting director Judith O’Toole.

Officials would not disclose details of the private settlement, nor say whether it included monetary damages for the complainants.

“It’s always a victory for employees when they have a say in the policy that affects them,” said Megan Block, the attorney representing the complainants.

In late September, four current and former employees, all women, had filed a “charge against employer” with the NLRB. They alleged the Mattress Factory violated federal labor law by discriminating against employees who engaged in “protected concerted activity for mutual aid or protection,” documents show.

The women claimed they were confronted with hostility, intimidation and threats of losing their jobs after voicing concerns about the museum’s response to multiple reports of sexual harassment and assaults allegedly inflicted by a co-worker. That person no longer works there.

RELATED: Mattress Factory responds to claims of mishandling sexual harassment complaints

“The Mattress Factory acknowledges that certain of its procedures and responses were inadequate,” officials said in a joint statement issued shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday on behalf of the museum’s board as well as the complainants who filed the NLRB charges.

“In order to correct this, the Mattress Factory has established clear and direct policies and procedures based upon the most recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, legal counsel, and recommendations from the charging parties,” the statement said, “and will provide additional training to all employees and management on these new policies.”

Among policy changes outlined in the settlement:

  • Timeline for investigating complaints — Supervisors or managers who receive reports of sexual harassment must investigate and report back to the employee who initiated the report within two to three weeks. Previously, “it took one women about 11 weeks to get a response from an investigation, so the rough timeline in the new policy would hopefully prevent that from happening again,” Block said.
  • Mandatory, improved training — All employees, supervisors and managers must participate in sexual harassment and other workplace training that is aligned with federal EEOC standards, which ensures “that the training will be up to speed,” Block said.
  • “Retaliation” clearly defined — The museum has explicitly prohibited and defined retaliation as any act to dissuade an employee from making a complaint or participating in an investigation or other related activity regarding a complaint.

“A lot of employees don’t know the law,” Block said. “You want to make sure that the policy actually encourages people to report because the only way this gets better is if people feel comfortable in coming forward about what’s happening.”

Museum officials thanked current and former employees for having the “courage in coming forward on such sensitive and personal topics, and apologizes for the difficulties they have faced.”

“The complainants really cared about making The Mattress Factory a good place for people to work and a better place than they found it to be when they had issues that needed to be listened to,” said O’Toole, the former director of Westmoreland Museum of American Art tapped to guide The Mattress Factory amid the controversy.

The Mattress Factory placed Executive Director Michael Olijnyk on leave in late September.

Olijnyk remains on leave, O’Toole said Wednesday. He could not be reached for comment. O’Toole’s acting director contract runs until at least Jan. 14.

RELATED: Mattress Factory taps Westmoreland arts leader to helm Pittsburgh museum

A spokesperson for the NLRB could not be reached.

O’Toole said she anticipates the federal oversight body will approve the proposed settlement.

The situation also has prompted at least a few nonprofit leaders in the region to rethink their own policies regarding sexual harassment and employee retaliation, and consider investing more in employee resources, O’Toole said.

“It could have a very positive ripple effect,” O’Toole said. “Many nonprofits have to choose where they put their funding, and so sometimes very important positions like HR aren’t funded. … But we all need to recognize now that human resources is a very important aspect of what we do and we do need to find funding for that as well.”

Founded in 1977, the Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum and experimental artist lab that drew more than 104,000 visitors last year to its cluster of buildings, gift shop and cafe in the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh’s North Side.

The nonprofit employs about 50 people and has a $1.95 million annual budget.

The NLRB charge caught the attention of some of the museum’s largest funders, including the taxpayer-backed Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD), which placed a condition that the federal investigation be resolved before disbursing its 2019 grant.

“We’ve been talking with the funders all along the way to keep them informed of what we’re doing,” O’Toole said. “We realize we have to win back their trust and the public’s trust, and we believe we’ll be successful.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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