October 23, 2015
In February of 2014, Angela Agganis returned to her job at the Oakland, Maine, T-Mobile call center after a few months of medical leave for mononucleosis. She’d been a customer-service representative at the center since 2006, and prided herself on being good at her job. “It’s a very delicate art form getting certain customers off the phone,” she told me in an interview. “I was really great at that.” But then she got a new boss.
Every six months or so, the representatives were rotated into a new “team” with a new “coach,” or supervisor. Normally, Agganis would have been able to bid for the team she wanted to be on, but since she was out sick, she had to take what was given her. In March, she was assigned to a new coach, and, she told me, “Pretty much right away I started feeling uncomfortable.” He made inappropriate comments, and touched her inappropriately. On her very first day on the job, a human resources representative had made clear that the company had a strict no-touching, no-fraternization policy, but at first, she said, his behavior was subtle enough that she didn’t want to make trouble. One of her co-workers, though, had warned her to be careful around him. “I heard he’s bad with women.”
It got worse. After eight years at the company, Agganis was itching for a promotion, and her coach offered to mentor her. But it felt to her more like an opportunity for him to put his hands on her. She said there was one day where her coach walked up to her colleague, whom she'd been waiting around for—the two women carpooled together—and started massaging her shoulder while staring straight at Agganis. “I felt he was gauging my response,” she said.
Not long afterward, as she waited for her carpooling colleague again, the coach came up to Agganis and began rubbing her shoulder. She pulled away. He said nothing then, but in their next weekly “coaching,” Agganis said, he told her one of her metrics was a little below target and that he could write her up for it—but he wouldn’t. “I felt threatened that if I didn’t put up with his behavior he would write me up and make trouble for me,” she said. Agganis began having panic attacks, and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication for the first time in her life.
When she went to human resources to make a complaint, though, she felt dismissed. By that time, she’d googled her coach, Gary Rochon, and according to the legal complaint she’s filed, found that he had lost his medical license in Wisconsin for having a sexual relationship with a patient. Healso lost a job in Maine following accusations of sexual harassment. Agganis questioned T-Mobile’s judgment in hiring someone with his history to manage a workplace staffing mostly young women, and asked for him to be put on suspension while the company conducted the internal investigation she was told would happen. Instead, she said, she was advised to stick it out until the next rotation, when she would be given a new supervisor.
She was asked to sign a confidentiality form, she said. Agganis asked for time to read the form, and was shocked to discover that it seemed to be telling her that if she talked to her co-workers about her sexual-harassment complaint, she could be disciplined or even fired. “I didn’t want to lose my job,” she said. “But I couldn’t stay where I was being harassed.” She was led to believe that if she didn’t sign the form, there would be no investigation. She signed it, and then she resigned from her job.
“I felt like they were dismissive of my claims and my requests and then tried to shut me up,” she said. “I was not given any power in the situation. It was ‘You have to stay silent and trust us, we’ll handle it.’ HR departments are there to protect the company, not the employees. They were going to do what they had to do to protect the company, not me.”
Agganis didn’t give up. Instead, she reached out to the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents many telecom workers, including some at T-Mobile, but not at the Oakland call center. The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on her behalf, arguing that the confidentiality agreement violated the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for workers—the act specifically allows workers to discuss “issues related to their terms and conditions of employment,” and act collectively to change those conditions. This August, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge ruled in her favor, requiring T-Mobile to rescind the confidentiality agreements and post notice to its employees at the Maine and South Carolina sites, informing them that it had violated the NLRA and informing them of their rights under the act.
And then this month, backed by CWA, Agganis went public. She’d filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Center and the Maine Human Rights Commission, which issued her a Right to Sue letter. She filed suit in the United States District Court in Maine, charging sex discrimination and wrongful discharge in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Maine Human Rights Act. On October 6, she held a news conference near the T-Mobile call center, and she and her supporters handed out flyers to T-Mobile employees informing them of her complaint.
Confidentiality notices like the one Agganis received present a barrier to halting sexual harassment, according to Emily Martin, Vice-President and General Counsel for the National Women’s Law Center. “It means that employees don’t feel that they can talk with each other about what they’re experiencing. Often that’s a critical means by which employees come to understand that what’s happening to them is not an individual problem that they need to deal with but is a broader pattern of discrimination that requires some solution.” In addition, she said, if the punishment for speaking up about sexual harassment is the loss of one’s job, “retaliation for bringing a charge of sexual harassment is very definitely illegal.”
Customer-service workers, like Agganis, already have to do a lot of what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild termed “emotional labor,” the management of one’s own emotions in order to produce a certain emotional state in someone else. The labor of making other people happy is deeply gendered—Agganis noted that the majority of customer-service representatives at the Oakland call center were women, while there were only two or three female coaches. Workers performing labor that requires they be compliant and make their own feelings subservient to others’ are in a particularly susceptible position when it comes to harassment and other workplace abuses.
While it’s hard to find statistics on call-center workers in particular, the food-service industry, which requires similar emotional labor from its workers, has sky-high rates of sexual harassment—a survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Center found that 66 percent of female and more than half of male restaurant workers report being harassed by a manager, and 78 percent of women and 55 percent of men reported being harassed by customers. In the call center, the customer is on the other side of the phone, restricting his ability for an inappropriate touch, but the manager is still right there and holds all the power.
“I think it’s the case in relatively low-wage service jobs, employees are often at particular risk for harassment and other sorts of discrimination,” Martin said, “Their employers see them as easily replaceable and the employee feels vulnerable and easily replaceable; she feels like if she objects that there are other people lined up for her job, and a situation like that really leaves employees vulnerable to different kinds of exploitation, definitely including sexual harassment.”
According to Agganis, several coaches at the call center would use just that kind of leverage over the employees. “They know this is a very economically depressed area. I’ve had multiple coaches that said ‘You know, you couldn’t have a job with this kind of benefits and this kind of pay anywhere else in the area.’ They really scare their employees.”
The call centers, Agganis said, have proliferated in Maine in recent years and take advantage of the state’s particularly rough economy. “They sprouted after NAFTA and mills closed down, now call centers have come because they know that there’s all these workers that are out of work. I think call center work has sort of become the new mill work.”
After hearing about the policy, the NWLC and several other organizations came together with the AFL-CIO to put together a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on her to press T-Mobile’s parent company, Deutsche Telekom, in which the German government is a major shareholder, to reform the policies that prevent workers like Agganis from talking with one another about the harassment they may face.
As of press time, the coalition had not received a response from Merkel or the German government. A T-Mobile spokesperson told DAME that, "We have updated our confidentiality agreements following the NLRB ruling and now utilize a different form." But she declined to comment on Agganis's case, citing pending litigation.
To Martin, all of this is a sign that collective power is the best hope for workers to effect change and stop harassment. “I hope that the attention being paid to this issue means that more workers will feel able to come forward and able to say this is what happened to me and it was wrong,” she said. “I think it’s an example of why it is so critically important for women to ensure that workers really have a strong voice in the workplace. This is a worker’s rights issue but it’s also a women’s rights issue and you can’t really separate the two things.”