A first job is often seen as the first step in becoming an adult. But for some teenagers, they are thrust into a world of harassment, where older supervisors greet them with sexual innuendo, inappropriate questions, and in the case of one 16-year-old girl; rape.
Attorneys for the then-16-year-old east San Diego County woman say Safeway Companies, one of Southern California's largest grocery store chains, showed a preference to sweep sexual harassment claims under the rug, transferring the accused instead of taking disciplinary action, allowing predators to prey on young, innocent victims.
Listen to how the team investigated this story in the latest episode of INSIGHT, a new podcast from NBC 7 Investigates. Click below or search "Insight NBC" on your favorite podcast app to listen to the latest episode.
“Jane” was 16-years old when she was hired as a “courtesy clerk” at the Vons grocery store in La Mesa. (NBC 7 does not reveal the names of victims of sexual assault.)
“I thought it was exciting” Jane told NBC 7 Investigates in an exclusive interview. “I thought it was a step closer to starting to grow up.”
Jane’s direct supervisor was a 23-year-old man, who she says was “nice, friendly and outspoken.”
By her second week on the job, Jane said the supervisor began asking her personal questions - if she smoked marijuana, or if she had a boyfriend.
“He wasn’t your typical boss. He was a little different. It was like he wanted to be a part of people's personal lives,” she said. “I brushed it off. I didn’t think of telling my parents. It was my first job. You know I'm trying to come home and just tell them, you know, great stories.”
The questions soon turned into invitations. Jane said the supervisor asked her if she wanted to smoke pot in his car during her lunch break.
She said no, at first.
He asked again and she agreed.
“He was in charge of the lunch breaks and, like, the whole schedule. So he just told me that he would switch my break to time it with his. And he just told me just to walk from a certain side and he'll walk from the opposite, so it didn't look weird.”
It soon became a routine.
During the next two weeks, Jane says she would meet him at his car during their break, smoke marijuana and then return to work.
But she said her supervisor soon became possessive of her, becoming angry if she talked to other male employees or customers.
“He got mad because I helped a male customer. He cussed me out in front of the whole staff and in front of customers. It happened quite frequently to where he would just go off on me and I felt like I couldn't breathe anymore at work,” she told NBC 7 Investigates. “It was creepy and made me uncomfortable.”
The demoralizing comments were not all. Jane said her supervisor showed up at her house to take her to work. He met her brothers and sister, and eventually her parents.
“I never asked him to come over. He was just constantly there. It was like if I'm not at work, then he's at my home. It was weird.”
On February 7, 2015 Jane and her supervisor had planned to ditch work together and spend the day at the beach. On their way to the beach, she said he had to stop at a Motel 6 where he had been staying. As both were inside the room, Jane said he called her to the bathroom and handed her a bong with marijuana packed inside.
“I took about I would say three puffs or something like that,” said Jane. “Moments after I just remember feeling super like lightweight and the high that I experienced previously it just wasn't the same.”
“I remember seeing him in the corner of the room and he was touching himself. That's the first thing that I remember,” she said.
Jane said she was in and out of consciousness. She remembers pushing him off of her, mumbling for him to stop. She said she mustered enough strength to push him off of her and she came to. She was naked, her underwear strewn on the floor beside the bed.
Jane’s parents later learned about the alleged incident. According to a police report, there was an altercation in the following days at the Vons location between the girl’s family and the supervisor. Management at Vons suspended the supervisor, and later terminated him.
Months later, police arrested the supervisor and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office charged him with statutory rape. In May 2017 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor lewd conduct charge and was sentenced to probation and community service.
“I definitely think he got off extremely easy,” said Jane.
In February 2016 Jane filed a lawsuit against her former employer Vons for negligence in hiring, training, and also made allegations that the supermarket giant had a practice of transferring supervisors who had been accused of sexual harassment to other stores instead of disciplining them or terminating them.
Before the criminal trial, the supervisor filed a grievance with the United Food and Commercial Workers 135 Union, seeking help from the union to overturn his termination. During a deposition in the civil case, a longtime union employee explained the frequency of sexual harassment allegations that occur at the large grocery supermarket chain.
“It was not uncommon for Vons to resolve allegations of sexual harassment where UFCW Local 135 was involved because of a grievance by transferring the parties involved, including the victim of the alleged sexual harassment, to different stores,” testified the unnamed representative.
That much was said in a redacted court deposition from a union representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 in San Diego.
The 35-year union representative testified that he had seen evidence of an unwritten policy from Vons to transfer employees who were accused of sexual harassment.
Added the representative, “In my experience, this happened even when there appeared to be some merit to the allegations of sexual harassment.”
In a separate court deposition, a former District Manager for Vons who at one time oversaw the store where Jane had worked said he could not recall any specific sexual harassment training for minors.
“I don't remember training that was specific to minors, just training in general.”
Jane says that training may have prevented the alleged assault.
“It's it's hard on me just because I look back when I was 16 and I'm just like how did I not see like those like red flags,” Jane said. “Like, why did I not speak to someone higher up?
“Why didn't I tell my mom? It's those types of questions that stick inside of your brain 24/7 and you question why did you not do this or why did you not do that. Why was I so gullible and so naive?”
Jane said she now must live with the consequences.
“I ended up I went through a couple depressions. I had to go to speech therapy because I developed a stutter. It's kind of embarrassing sometimes. So I have to go to counseling.”
Attorneys for the former supervisor and Vons did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.
In court filings, Vons denied the lawsuit's allegations and any liability in the case.
In a deposition in the case, a former district manager for Vons said the company has a "zero tolerance policy" regarding sexual harassment, resulting in automatic termination.
NBC 7 confirmed the supervisor is working for another major grocery chain in Santee.
Workplace harassment of underage girls nationwide is common.
According to a 2011 survey from the American Association of University Women, half of high school girls that were surveyed experienced some form of sexual abuse or harassment in a given year.
In an unrelated study, researchers from UC San Diego found that 81 percent of women experience some form of sexual harassment in their lives - 38 percent of sexual harassment reports by women occur at the workplace.
Elizabeth Reed is an associate professor at San Diego State University. Reed researches sexual abuse and harassment of young women.
“We conducted a study of adolescent girls these are girls aged 15 to 19-years old in a neighborhood here in San Diego,” said Reed. “We found that 65 percent of girls reported sexual harassment in the past six months. Things like others saying sexually explicit things to them and also physical harassment, unwanted touching and groping.”
As far as the workplace goes, Reed found that 55 percent of women report sexual harassment at the workplace. And for younger girls just entering the workforce, Reed said many are reluctant to report the harassment.
“Many fear that they will not be believed or they fear the blame will be shifted on to them.”