Mattress Factory responds to claims of mishandling sexual harassment complaints

The Mattress Factory, founded in 1977, is a contemporary art museum and experimental artist lab that draws art lovers its cluster of buildings, gift shop and cafe in the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh’s North Side.

The Mattress Factory, founded in 1977, is a contemporary art museum and experimental artist lab that draws art lovers its cluster of buildings, gift shop and cafe in the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Updated 14 minutes ago

The Mattress Factory contemporary art museum said Thursday its board “will soon announce a number of actions” as a result of an internal probe into allegations of retaliation against employees who reported sexual harassment.

The internal investigation by the museum and popular tourist destination in Pittsburgh’s North Side coincides with a federal investigation by the National Labor Review Board, the body responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law.

Four current and former employees, all women, filed a “charge against employer” with the NLRB on Monday, alleging the Mattress Factory violated federal labor law by discriminating against employees who engaged in “protected concerted activity for mutual aid or protection,” documents show.

The women who lodged the complaint — Anna-Lena Kempen, Kathleen Urich, Nicole Hall and Kaylin Carder — claim they were confronted with hostility, intimidation and threats of losing their jobs after voicing concerns about the museum’s response to multiple reports of sexual harassment and assaults allegedly inflicted by a co-worker.

“The complaint to the NLRB does not involve sexual harassment but grows out of those allegations, as the current and former staffers are saying they faced discrimination and retaliation after speaking up collectively about the alleged harassment,” Mattress Factory officials said in a statement.

“In the bigger picture, while that is an important legal distinction that people should understand, the bottom line for us remains living up to our commitment to the employees, artists, members, visitors and community that we serve,” said the museum’s statement, which did not provide specific details about the steps it may take.

In the NLRB charge document, the four women say the hostile and intimidating work environment began after they joined other coworkers in signing a May 16 letter addressed to Mattress Factory’s management. The letter outlined “concerns regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and management’s response to these complaints.”

Hall and Urich delivered the letter in person to Michael Olijnyk, who was promoted to the museum’s executive director in June.

Afterward, Olijnyk refused to speak to Hall, the charge document says.

Two days later, a manager warned employees, including Hall, that “they were not to discuss sexual harassment issues during work hours,” implying that they would lose their jobs if they did, the charge says. Hall further claims that her direct supervisor took away some of her duties, including attending board meetings and planning “preferred development projects.”

The charge document alleges several more instances of retaliation over the next several weeks, from late May to early August:

  • On May 25, Olijnyk allegedly yelled at Urich “for work issues that had not been discussed for weeks or months,” then demanded to see her emails “as proof that she was doing her job.” On July 24, Olijnyk intimidated, yelled at and threw paper at Urich, the charge says.
  • On May 30, Olijnyk allegedly berated Carder when she gave her two weeks’ notice she was leaving because she was unhappy with how management had handled the sexual harassment allegations and “felt unsafe at work.”
  • On Aug. 3, Kempen was asked by a museum official if she had made up the sexual harassment allegations and was told that she should “just get over it,” the charge says. The next day, Kempen received a text message from the same official implying she could lose her job if she brought the allegations up again at work.

Megan Block, attorney for the women who filed the NLRB charge, said Thursday that her clients also are exploring all other possible remedies and legal options — such as a potential federal civil rights lawsuit that would more directly address the allegations of sexual harassment and the museum’s response.

None of the women reported the incidents to police. Block said there are many reasons why victims of sexual assault do not go to authorities and “that doesn’t mean their report’s not credible.”

Block added, “Someone who survives sexual assault does not have to report it to the police for an employer to be liable.”

The Mattress Factory said it first became aware of “workplace harassment allegations involving one of our former employees” in February.

In response, the museum said it retained “outside professionals to provide remedial workplace harassment training to this individual” and met with staff to provide further training to other employees and management. It also hired a human resources professional to review internal personnel issues and policies.

Museum spokeswoman Mandy Wilson declined to identify the former employee in question and would not say when the employee started and finished working there, citing personnel confidentiality. Museums officials declined to comment Thursday beyond written statements.

Founded in 1977, the Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum and experimental artist lab that drew more than 104,000 visitors last year to its cluster of buildings, gift shop and cafe in the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh’s North Side.

The nonprofit employs about 50 people and has a $1.95 million annual budget.

Its largest funders include The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the taxpayer-funded Allegheny Regional Asset District, also known as RAD. Last year, RAD contributed to the Mattress Factory $105,000 — an $80,000 operating grant plus a $25,000 capital grant.

On Wednesday, RAD’s funding allocation committee noted in their 2019 preliminary budget that the Mattress Factory’s $82,000 operating grant for next year hinges on a review by legal counsel, in accordance with RAD policy and local and federal law.

RAD’s legal review was spurred by the NLRB charge filed on Monday and not by any concerns over the organization’s financial management.

Mattress Factory officials said they have been communicating with RAD board members and are working to ensure that they continue to meet the funder’s requirements.

“The allegations in the NLRB charge simply do not represent our values,” the Mattress Factory said in a statement. “We continue to work to get to the bottom of this and to meet our responsibility to provide a safe, positive environment where staffers are able to learn, grow and develop in their roles. Clearly, we have more work to do.”

The NLRB will spend the next one to two months interviewing the parties named in the charge document to determine if the labor law violation case has enough merit to advance before an administrative judge.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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