The unanimous verdict against the Municipality of Guaynabo, in a sexual and workplace harassment case, brings a lesson on the cost that people pay when public institutions fail in their responsibility to prevent and correct all conduct that threatens respect, integrity and human dignity in workplaces.
The unanimous message of the jury is clear: the government must take note of how serious abusive behavior towards women in workplaces is. This behavior harasses women and terrifies both the victims and their families.
The municipality of Guaynabo will have to pay more than a million dollars to a former employee victim of harassment perpetrated by Héctor O'Neill Rosa when his father Héctor O'Neill was the municipality´s mayor. This is a very significant amount, especially amid the island´s current fiscal weakness. It is the result of municipal non-compliance with laws and policies that prohibit all illegal and indecent practices against workers, regardless of gender.
The outcome of the case before the San Juan Federal Court shows the serious repercussions that public and private employers who ignore situations of harassment or other conduct that may affect their human resources must face. It shows that any harassment situation must be stopped and rectified without delay.
Puerto Rico has suffered other deplorable cases of abuse of power and sexual crimes in its municipalities. For example, former Cidra mayor Ángel Malavé Zayas was found guilty of a pattern of sexual harassment and lascivious acts against municipal employees and was sentenced to nine years and seven months of house arrest.
Such illegal and demoralizing behaviors undermine the principle of merit by alienating valuable public service resources. They also allude to harmful work environments, contrary to constitutional precepts.
Our Constitution establishes that the dignity of the human being is inviolable. And the Constitution clearly states that "no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, sex, birth, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas." It also stresses that both the laws and the public education system "shall embody these principles of essential human equality." Therefore, public and private work environments that lead to discrimination, mistreatment, and abuse are unacceptable.
A study by the Workplace Bullying Alliance found that 51.8 percent of people employed in Puerto Rico have experienced some form of workplace harassment. In 2018, the entity reported that companies that do not respond to such complaints spend from $ 180,000 to $ 500,000 annually for every 2,000 employees.
In addition to the economic impact, employees who share harmful environments, aggravated by reprisals and intimidation as a senseless response to their complaints, suffer emotional distress.
For this reason, all employers must embrace the law and combat and prevent demoralizing dynamics such as those that occurred in the municipality of Guaynabo.
It is necessary to immediately address any sign of work misconduct in order to take the right actions. That´s the way to put an end to the suffering of victims and to avoid complex, expensive and even more harmful legal proceedings for the parties.
Another important lesson from the decision in the Guaynabo case is that women must be aware that they must report any abuse against them their colleagues. This is an intolerable conduct that must be stopped and penalized.
The court ruling shows all citizens that it is possible to take affirmative actions in defense of harmonious work environments that encourage productivity and the exercise of justice.