The Mattress Factory has settled with a group of current or former employees who said the art museum’s management retaliated against them for criticizing how it handled claims of workplace sexual misconduct.
The settlement comes as the museum is also expecting the closure of a case the employees filed in September with the National Labor Relations Board. The allegations rocked the internationally known, North Side-based museum; the private settlement with the four staffers or ex-staffers, announced Wednesday, represents a step toward the institution regaining its footing.
Wednesday’s joint statement announced the settlement with current employee Anna-Lena Kempen and former employees Kaylin Carder, Nicole K. Hall and Katie Urich. The statement acknowledged that some of the museum’s “policies and procedures” for both investigating the original misconduct claims and dealing with employees who protested were “inadequate.” It said the museum had since instituted better policies and training.
The statement also thanked “current and former employees for their courage in coming forward on such sensitive and personal topics,” and apologized “for the difficulties they have faced.”
Mattress Factory acting director Judith O’Toole praised the four complainants for their input.
“They sincerely wanted to make the museum a better place for staff to work, and felt that the way we had dealt with their complaints was inappropriate, inefficient, not proper according to business practices,” said O’Toole. “The apology is something they were interested in because nobody had ever extended an apology to them for the amount of time it took us to respond, and the other issues they had concerns with. And we agreed that we had not handled things well and that they certainly deserved an apology.”
Megan Block, the attorney for the four women, emphasized that her clients’ main intention was to reform the Mattress Factory, whose managers they felt had not listened to their original complaints and otherwise treated them badly.
“They just wanted to improve their working conditions and prevent this from happening again,” said Block. “And so a lot of the settlement is really addressing that desire, making sure that the Mattress Factory actually properly handled complaints, and encourages people to report, and follows through and all of that.”
Both O'Toole and Block declined to comment on whether the settlement included any monetary damages for the complainants.
In September, the four women had shocked the museum by filing the charge with the NLRB. The complaint alleged that they and other employees had been verbally abused and denied work assignments by the museum after they signed a letter to Mattress Factory co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk. The letter, hand-delivered to Olijnyk on May 16, criticized the museum’s response to multiple claims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and even rape levied by six women employees against a male co-worker.
The settlement announced Wednesday grew out of talks the complainants had with the museum this fall, after filing the NLRB charge. The NLRB has meanwhile been conducting its own investigation into the episode. O’Toole said the federal agency has delivered to the Mattress Factory an agreement that would close out that investigation. She said that, among other things, the document requires the museum to post in the workplace materials informing staff of their rights and privileges as employees.
O’Toole said today that the Mattress Factory’s board had signed off on the NLRB settlement and was waiting for the agency to give final OK.
The Mattress Factory, which recently marked its 40th anniversary, grew out of an art space that Luderowski founded in an old industrial building. The Mattress Factory became a pioneer in the field of installation art, and went on to commission room-sized works by some 750 artists from 30 countries. It also acquired multiple buildings in the vicinity of its six-story headquarters. Luderowski and her long-time co-director, Olijnyk, were well-respected for their innovative programming, and for contributing to the neighborhood's ongoing revitalization.
In February, an employee in the museum’s exhibitions department approached Olijnyk on behalf of herself and several co-workers. She told him that a male co-worker who worked in the exhibitions department (installing and de-installing artworks) had sexually assaulted her, and had been accused of rape by another female co-worker, assault by a third, and multiple instances of sexual harassment by others. (The alleged rape, sexual assault and assault took place off-site.) A second rape allegation against the man surfaced later.
Olijnyk conducted an internal investigation, but the alleged perpetrator was allowed to remain on the job. And some three months after Olijnyk was informed of the alleged misconduct, employees learned that the only apparent outcome of the investigation was that the man was required to attend sexual-harassment training. That’s when 18 employees signed the letter to Olijnyk and Luderowski. (Luderowski, who died May 30 at age 88, had not been involved in the museum’s daily operations since late 2017; the museum’s board named Olijnyk executive director.)
In late May, the alleged perpetrator left the museum. The museum has declined to discuss his departure. But subsequently, said the four complainants, that Olijnyk and other museum management retaliated against them for the letter with verbal abuse and rescinded work assignments.
The complaints filed the NLRB charge Sept. 24. (It was specifically concerned with the retaliation, not the museum’s original handling of the misconduct allegations.) Days later, the museum’s board put Olijnyk on paid leave. O’Toole, former long-time head of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, was hired as interim director in October.
O’Toole acknowledges the museum’s missteps, citing “[t]he way we carried out the internal investigation, the lack of preparation of staff of how to deal with these sensitive issues, the lack of timeliness that was involved, and then also the way we responded when there was a petition put together by some of the staff including some of the complainants, but also other staff who was concerned about what was going on.”
She said the museum’s new policies cover how managers should deal with complaints of sexual harassment as well as how an investigation should be conducted, and what constitutes retaliation. She said the museum would also soon be hiring its first in-house human-resources person.
She said the new policies were created based on information from the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and also in consultation with the four complainants.
One complainant was Katie Urich, the museum’s former marketing manager. Reached by email today, she wrote, “We had the opportunity to meet with Judy O’Toole a couple times during this process, and I found her to be an empathetic and capable leader.”
Speaking of her clients, attorney Block said, “I think they really appreciated Judy O’Toole sitting down with them and answering their questions, and being willing to share information and talk through problems. … I think it was reassuring to have someone genuine at the table hearing their concerns and responding to their concerns.”
Block said that had her clients not settled with museum privately, the NLRB might have taken the case to a hearing before an administrative law judge. That could possibly have resulted in the NLRB awarding damages to complainants including back pay.
In September, after the NLRB charge was filed, the museum board announced it was conducting an internal investigation into the matter. O’Toole said that that investigation has been completed, but “it will remain a confidential document.”
Olijnyk, the former executive director, remains on paid leave. O’Toole’s renewable three-month contract as acting director is up Jan. 14.