NEW YORK — Sterling Jewelers, the company that owns Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, has been accused of fostering a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination against its female employees.
The company has been locked in an arbitration battle for nearly a decade with hundreds of former employees who allege that women were accosted, pressured into sex for advancement or protection, and routinely paid less than men.
Hundreds of documents in the case were made public on Sunday, including sworn depositions from ex-employees who claim they were preyed upon by male supervisors and paid less than underperforming male colleagues. They were first reported by the Washington Post.
The women who filed the depositions worked in stores ranging from Florida to Nevada to Massachusetts.
The case has been declared a class action and encompasses 69,000 current and former Sterling employees.
"These documents suggest a culture that allowed and even encouraged sexual discrimination at every level," said Joseph Sellers, partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll and lead counsel for the plaintiffs.
"The circumstances described by current and former employees are terribly demeaning to women, not just because they were mistreated but because they saw their co-workers treated as sexual objects, too," he said.
The documents are online at the Cohen Milstein website.
The stores are known for their romantic commercials, "Every kiss begins with Kay" and "He must have gone to Jared."
But the depositions and the arbitration documents describe an atmosphere rife with abuse.
In one filing in the long arbitration case, lawyers for the women wrote about the corporate atmosphere, "This behavior includes frequent references to women in sexual and vulgar ways; groping and grabbing women; soliciting sexual relations with women, sometimes as a quid pro quo for employment benefits; creating an environment at often mandatory company events in which women are expected to undress publicly, accede to sexual overtures and refrain from complaining about the abusive treatment to which they have been subjected. It has even included sexual assault and rape."
A spokesperson for Sterling, described as the largest specialty jeweler in the country with more than 1,300 stores, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, a spokesman told the Washington Post that the allegations involve a small number of people.
He said the company "thoroughly investigated the allegations and have concluded they are not substantiated by the facts and certainly do not reflect our culture," and "has created strong career opportunities for many thousands of women working at our stores nationwide."
Diane Acampora, who worked at Sterling in Pennsylvania, for several years, described routine sexual harassment at the company's annual Managers' Meeting.
"It was common knowledge at the company that these meetings provided abundant opportunity for heavy drinking and extramarital activity between male managers, supervisors and executives and subordinate female managers," she said in a 2012 sworn statement.
"I was involuntarily involved in this uncontrolled sexual activity at the first [redacted] Managers' Meeting I attended in 2002... at some point I was physically pulled onto the lap of a male Sterling Manager and groped and fondled sexually," she stated.
Acampora said that "during this same [redacted] Managers' Meeting, I was also approached by a male district manager I knew who tried to kiss me."
Timeen Adair worked for the company in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, from approximately 1992 to 2009. She described discovering on several occasions that she was paid less than male employees with comparable or inferior qualifications.
Adair also said in her deposition that executives would seek out attractive female employees to accompany them on nights out.
"District Manager [redacted] would call the store and tell us that [redacted] was coming to town," she said in a 2012 statement. The district manager would determine "which women from the store he was to arrange for [the executive] to party with at the club... It was apparent to me that [redacted] was arranging these evenings to find someone to hook up with sexually."
Mandy Lee Alva of Valparaiso, Indiana, recalled one 2003 incident when male colleagues spoke about her breast implants. "While in my store, my male [redacted] commented on my implanted breasts in front of two other males, one of whom was a co-employee. This comment was totally unprovoked and unwelcomed."
Alva said in her 2012 statement that she reported the incident to her manager, who filed a complaint with human resources. "I never heard from HR about the complaint and as far as I am aware nothing was ever done about it," she said.