Two Montgomery County councilmen are calling for more transparency in how Metro handles complaints of sexual harassment lodged against its workers.
In a letter sent to Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld this week, Transportation Committee Chairman Tom Hucker and member Hans Riemer asked Metro to account for how often complaints from passengers and employees result in disciplinary action.
“We’re sure you agree that any reports of sexual harassment or abusive behavior are very disturbing,” the men wrote. “It’s even more disturbing when those complaints — whether by passengers or WMATA workers — involve WMATA employees themselves.”
Investigations by the News4 I-Team
The letter comes on the heels of a News4 I-Team investigation that found at least 120 complaints of sexual harassment were filed by Metro passengers against its employees between March 2016 and June 2019. The I-Team, which obtained the information through a lengthy open records request, also found more than 50 complaints of sexual harassment were filed by Metro workers against other employees since 2015, but less than half were found to have probable cause.
Crude Commute: Passenger Complaints Alleging Harassment by Metrorail Staff
Metro passengers have filed at least 120 complaints about sexual harassment from WMATA rail and bus workers between 2016 and 2019. Click on the stations below to read some of the complaints alleging misconduct on Metrorail. (Scroll down)
Source: News4 I-Team via FOIA request to WMATA. Not all complaints are shown. Some have been lightly edited for clarity and redacted due to explicit language or to remove descriptions that could be used to identify individuals.
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBCWashington
The records do not fully detail, however, how often the complaints led to disciplinary action. In a statement, a Metro spokesman told News4 that five out of 30 complaints filed by passengers against employees last year resulted in disciplinary action but did not provide numbers for prior years.
In their letter, Hucker and Riemer pressed for more complete data. Metro has not yet responded to a News4 request for comment on the letter.
They’re among the lawmakers responding to the I-Team’s findings, which show complaints that range from horn-honking and lewd comments to allegations of assault. While each report did not indicate the sex of the complainant, many were filed by women. At least one was filed by a man.
In an interview with News4, Hucker said the complaints obtained by News4 likely represent a “tiny fraction of actual incidents,” as most people don’t report episodes of harassment. Hucker said the frequency with which those complaints lead to discipline could be sending a message to Metro staff.
“People need to learn not just what sexual harassment is and what to do and not do, but what happens to you if you practice it,” he said, adding: “I want to know what’s worthy of discipline in their minds and what’s not, where that line is.”
In some of the incidents, workers were accused of “blowing kisses” or passing phone numbers to underage girls. Another allegedly told a passenger he has a “foot fetish” and enjoyed looking at her feet during the ride. Some are accused of commenting on passengers’ bodies, touching them inappropriately or even closing the rear doors of a bus to force a female passenger to walk past the driver to exit.
In the most serious complaint, a woman accused a Metro employee, who she says invited her into his booth to charge her phone late at night, of then blocking her exit and sexually assaulting her.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat who represents Virginia’s 10th congressional district, called the notion of employees harassing coworkers or passengers “completely unacceptable.”
“No one should be subjected to that kind of conduct or behavior,” she told News4. “Somebody needs to be held accountable."
The complaints come years into a high-profile public service campaign that’s intended to curb sexual harassment on the transit system.
Holly Kearl, who as head of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment helped spur the Metro campaign in 2012, called the I-Team’s findings disappointing.
“When my organization started addressing this issue with WMATA in 2012, we heard some of the same stories then, so it's very disheartening eight years later to see some of the same behavior happening,” she said.
Back then, a WMATA spokesman raised eyebrows when he said “one person’s harassment is another person’s flirting,” she recalled.
Though Metro has made significant strides in accepting and raising awareness of the problem in the years since, Kearl said, “If people are still facing harassment, then it's probably not enough.”
WMATA declined several requests for an interview but in an earlier statement said it “strives to handle every report of sexual harassment with the seriousness it deserves” and “any incident of harassment by a Metro employee is an especially egregious breach of trust.”
The transit agency employs roughly 12,000 workers, with about a third in roles such as train operators or police officers that interact with the public.
WMATA said it’s making changes to how complaints are fielded and how employees are trained.
Previously, complaints were sent to the management team responsible for the employee in question, but after identifying “inadequacies in our training and response” in 2018, Metro leadership created a central office within its Office of Equal Employment Opportunity to investigate reports.
WMATA also said that while new hires are trained on the company’s anti-harassment policy, starting this year, all employees will be required to take a new web-based anti-harassment training at least every two years.
Kearl, who has written extensively about sexual harassment, said web-based training is insufficient because it’s easy for people to “tune out” or multi-task. She suggested Metro conduct more in-person training “and really talk about the impact sexual harassment can have on people.”
That way, she continued, “staff are less likely to dismiss it as a compliment or flirting and see that people actually change their lives because of harassment.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot by Jeff Piper and Evan Carr.