Letter details ‘severe’ sexual harassment at AccuWeather under Trump’s pick to lead NOAA

April 12th, 2019 | ThinkProgress Staff

President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ran a family company in which employees were subjected to “widespread” and “pervasive” sexual harassment, according to an investigation by the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

The investigation concluded that AccuWeather, the company then run by Trump nominee Barry Lee Myers, had a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination that included unwanted touching and kissing by a male executive, according to a letter obtained by ThinkProgress via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Women who engaged in sexual relationships with senior male managers were rewarded with “job-related perks,” the OFCCP letter concludes. Many women resigned rather than submitting to the harassment, while others feared being “blacklisted” if they filed complaints, the January 2018 letter states.

Although they were aware of the issue, AccuWeather officials “did not take reasonable action to prevent and remedy harassing conduct,” the letter says.

At the time the alleged incidents occurred, Myers was the chief executive officer of AccuWeather, which he ran alongside his two brothers.

In January of this year, Trump nominated Myers — for the third time — to lead NOAA. The revelations about the investigation into AccuWeather raise concerns about the nomination, particularly in light of NOAA’s history of sexual harassment issues.

“AccuWeather clearly denied the allegations and claims raised after the audit, and we continue to deny the allegations and claims,” Rhonda Seaton, director of marketing communications at AccuWeather, told ThinkProgress on Saturday. Seaton added that AccuWeather cooperated fully with the OFCCP workplace audit, and listed several workplace initiatives she says it has put in place to ensure a “welcoming, inclusive, empowering” culture.

The OFCCP letter to AccuWeather is known as a Notification of Results of Investigation. It details the findings of the department’s investigation into a 2016 complaint regarding a hostile work environment at the company.

AccuWeather, a government contractor subject to the federal Civil Rights Act, settled with the department, agreeing in June 2018 to pay $290,000 in claims to more than 35 women, as the Center Daily Times revealed in February.

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The OFCCP investigation was prompted by a complaint alleging that AccuWeather violated its obligations under the nondiscrimination and affirmative action provisions of its federal contracts by “creating and enabling a hostile work environment by subjecting employees to unlawful harassment based on their sex and sexual orientation,” according to the letter.

The complainant also alleged she was terminated “because of her sex and sexual orientation.”

The letter details specific allegations of “[h]arassment perpetrated by a male executive and another male manager by ostracizing [redacted] from her work’s group; excluding her from meetings and emails, and making day-to-day activities extremely difficult, including the use of profane and sexually explicit name-calling by an executive when referring to [redacted] and obscene references to [redacted] sexual orientation in communication with other employees.”

This sort of treatment, however, was not exclusive to one employee, the letter states. Over the course of its investigation, the OFCCP found “widespread sexual harassment” at AccuWeather.

More than two dozen witnesses “spanning many different departments and in positions ranging from administrative support to senior management described unlawful sexual harassment that occurred at the company,” the OFCCP wrote.

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“This sexual harassment was so severe and pervasive, that some female employees resigned,” the letter states. The investigation also confirmed that “AccuWeather was aware of the sexual harassment but took no action to correct the unlawful activity.”

AccuWeather said it was “unaware of any harassing activity,” according to the letter. It also pushed back against findings that it had a widespread, hostile work environment toward women, “arguing these allegations were outside the scope of OFCCP’s investigation.”

Neither the White House nor Myers responded to requests for comment.

At the time the investigation took place, AccuWeather’s 18-person executive team was all men except for the vice president of human resources. The company was led by three brothers: Joel Myers, founder and president; Evan Myers, chief operating officer; and Barry Myers, chief executive officer.

According to OFCCP, AccuWeather’s policy manual directed employees who wished to lodge a complaint regarding sexual discrimination to file an informal complaint with the company’s Ombudsman Committee. “At the time of the investigation, however,” the OFCCP letter states, “the Ombudsman Committee did not exist and had not been active for over two years.”

Trump again nominated Myers in January 2018, but the Senate did not vote on his nomination in time. He has now been nominated to the position for a third time.

Between his second and third nomination, Myers resigned from AccuWeather and sold his shares in the company. It was also during this time that the company settled its sexual harassment claims.

Although it is unclear how much Myers was involved in or aware of the sexual harassment incidences described by the Labor Department, he was head of the company during the time the incidents allegedly occurred and at the time the company agreed to pay the hefty settlement. As part of the settlement agreement, AccuWeather pledged it would create a workplace culture that did not tolerate harassment or discrimination.

Earlier this month, Myers’ nomination was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee; it is now up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to call a floor vote.

The full Senate typically does not question nominees once committees have approved them.

If Myers is confirmed, he will head a government agency that — like AccuWeather — has faced allegations of sexual harassment and, after years of inaction, took concrete steps to improve the work environment.

In September 2015, a NOAA oceanographer complained that she had been repeatedly harassed aboard government scientific research vessels.

“Try operating a half-million-dollar shipboard gyrocompass and multibeam sonar system while the captain of the boat shoves a meter stick between your legs, asking, ‘Are you moody because it’s that time of the month?’” Julia O’Hern described in a Washington Post op-ed.

But even though O’Hern reported some of the incidents to her superiors, she says NOAA ignored the allegations.

Instead of addressing the harassment, O’Hern wrote, a NOAA official suggested “that I should have just walked off the boat and refused to work. Of course, their employee had already threatened to fire me if I refused to work or spoke to anyone, and the whole point was that I wanted to do my job, not quit.

“It was soul-crushing to realize that I was expected to endure sexual harassment at sea as though it was no different than rough waters or long hours,” O’Hern wrote.

By the end of that year, both the House and Senate unanimously passed the “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Act,” which then-President Barack Obama signed. The law required NOAA develop a policy to prevent and respond to sexual assault and harassment.

This article was originally printed at ThinkProgress on April 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kyla Mandel is the deputy editor for the climate team. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mother Jones, and Vice. She has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in science, health, and environment reporting.

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