A state investigator found “reasonable cause” in former Fox 61 reporter Shelly Sindland’s age and gender discrimination complaint against Tribune Co. last month.
The finding by the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities gives Sindland an opportunity to pursue a public hearing where all the evidence and testimony gathered in the case will be presented again to an administrative law judge.
“I think it’s significant,” Sindland’s attorney Gregg Adler said Tuesday. “They don’t find cause that often.”
The year Sindland’s complaint was filed the commission found “reasonable cause” in only 75 of the 1,740 complaints filed.
Setting aside Sindland’s personal grievances for a moment, Adler said, the investigator’s report tells a story about the hostile work environment that Fox 61 created for all of its older female employees, many of whom have left the company but testified in Sindland’s CHRO investigation.
Tribune spokeswoman Andrea Savastra said Wednesday the company, which now calls itself FOX Connecticut, objects to the commission’s finding.
“We remain confident with the merits of our case and that the complainant will not ultimately prove her claims of illegal conduct,” Savastra wrote, adding, “FOX Connecticut is a business that fosters a culture of fairness and inclusion throughout the workplace, and we are proud of the strong relationship that exists company-wide between management and employees.”
Anita Zakrzewski, a Connecticut CHRO investigator, concluded last month in a 23-page report that “the information gathered through the investigative process reveals that workplace conduct occurred that was unwelcome and offensive.”
Topping the list of unwelcome and offensive for Sindland and former anchors Rebecca Stewart and Susan Christensen was the “Naked News” and “Big Boob Fridays” discussion.
Stewart, who has since left her job at the station, testified during the investigation that she attended a meeting on Jan. 30,2009, in which Fox 61 News Director Robert Rockstroh commented that the Friday newscast looked like “Big Boob Friday.“ According Stewart’s testimony, Rockstroh said the station’s ratings on that day did well because at least one female reporter wore tighter shirts on Fridays. “Hey, whatever works,“ Publisher Richard Graziano commented, according to Stewart.
Stewart also testified that she became an unwilling participant in conversations about the idea of promoting a “Naked News” on April Fools Day during which Stewart, a weekday anchor, would appear to be naked by wearing a flesh-colored top.
Promotions Director Joseph Schlitz testified that he could not recall whether he used the term “Naked News,” when brainstorming ideas for the April Fools’ Day broadcast. The investigator’s report also says Schlitz does not recall whether he told Stewart that she would just look naked. However, he did not know whether Stewart took the idea seriously after he and Assistant News Director Amy Fabozzi-Mattison telephoned her about it.
Fabozzi-Mattison testified that she doesn’t believe Stewart took the idea seriously and would have never allowed the idea to become reality. Stewart’s male co-anchor was not asked to appear as though he were naked.
Stewart was removed as weekday anchor shortly after the incident. She testified that she was devastated and angry because she had poured her heart and soul into creating the show. Stewart was replaced by Sarah French, who was 23 at the time.
Stewart testified she believed age was a factor in the station’s decision to transfer her to weekend anchor, a position she considered a demotion. She also believes her objection to the “Naked News” proposal was a factor in her removal.
Rockstroh and Fabozzi-Mattison testified that Stewart was removed after a consultant advised them that she had a tendency to dominate her male co-anchor and ad-lib. They said her ad-libbing was throwing off the pace of the show and her male co-anchor, Logan Byrnes, complained he was unable to get a word in edgewise. They testified that Stewart was stronger with harder news content, but French was stronger in creating a “fun atmosphere.”
Susan Christensen, who had to be subpoenaed to testify, told the investigator she was being treated differently than younger women in the newsroom. Christensen was so concerned about the hostile work environment that she asked Human Resources Director Hillary Patz to investigate the matter.
Graziano said he was unaware of Patz’s investigation into Christensen’s complaint of differential treatment and a hostile work environment. Patz’s internal investigation concluded no action needed to be taken.
On April 20, 2009, Christensen, who was in the midst of contract negotiations, told Sindland, “Oh, my God, they want me gone … I’m sorry I got old.” Christensen testified that Graziano asked her if she wanted to retire.
Christensen, who was replaced by Erika Arias, was only 42 when she left the station.
Christensen, Stewart, and Laurie Perez all testified that in 2009 the station featured several of its younger female personalities on a “Meet the Team” promotional poster, which didn’t include any of them. All three also testified they did not want to leave their anchor positions.
Perez, who still works at the station, testified with her attorney present that she was told she would go back to reporting full-time, instead of anchoring the weekend broadcast. She testified that Graziano informed her that he could hire two-and-a-half reporters to replace her at her salary.
Perez also was replaced by French, who “connected to the camera.” In contrast to Perez, who was a “more no-nonsense anchor.”
Sindland alleges that a photographer told co-workers in 2007 that she had gotten fat. After complaining to Patz, Sindland said the issue was never resolved and she was forced to continue working with the photographer.
Sindland also testified that Tribune had distributed a “Creative Harassment” policy in 2008 to signify a new culture in which sexual harassment would be more loosely and freely defined. Patz testified she does not believe the memo exists and has not been able to locate a copy of it.
The bulk of Sindland’s personal complaint revolves around the salary reductions and differential treatment she received when she put together the Sunday news show, “The Real Story.”
In June 2009, Sindland received a $7,000 reduction in pay and instead of a three-year contract the station offered her one year. The new contract provided no stipend for production of “The Real Story,” when her earlier contract provided a $100-per-show stipend.
Rockstroh testified that it wasn’t unusual for negotiations to start with a lower amount because of the Tribune’s bankruptcy. Tribune gave the investigator documents which show the company has not offered a three-year contract to any of its reporters since the December 2008 bankruptcy.
Sindland also complained that she wasn’t provided with producers for “The Real Story” unlike Rich Hancock and Stan Simpson.
Fabozzi-Mattison testified that Hancock had other reporting responsibilities on the day the show was taped, when Sindland did not. Rockstroh said Sindland did provide producers for her show, but since she was off the road she didn’t need them like Hancock did. Fabozzi-Mattison also testified that aside from improving her “attitude” Sindland was a team player and had good contacts, which she shared with the newsroom.
Sindland testified that she was subjected to intense scrutiny after filing her CHRO complaint and Fabozzi-Mattison sent emails criticizing her on-air name pronunciations and her voice-over work.
Sindland left Fox in May after nearly 15 years with the station. She discussed her complaint and CHRO finding last weekend when she was filing in for Brad Davis on his radio show. Sindland said she loved being a reporter and that the past year had been a really hard one. She said even though she was the station’s longest tenured news reporter, she left without a good-bye party or recognition of her work.
“It’s a hard place to be,” she said, “when you’re taking on the boss.”