GOP governor candidate Michels' construction company faced series of sexual harassment, racial discrimination allegations

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Female and minority workers who worked for a Brownsville construction company co-owned by Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels were allegedly subjected to sexual assault and harassment, racial discrimination and a hostile work environment, according to federal court cases spanning over two decades.

Most of the wide-ranging allegations in five lawsuits filed between 1998-2020 occurred on job sites in other states, with one in Wisconsin, while Tim Michels and his brothers ran the company. The Brownsville-based construction group employs more than 8,000 employees.   

All of the lawsuits were eventually settled, including some former employees signing non-disclosure agreements. 

Federal court documents reveal three former female employees separately sued Michels Corporation in 1998, and twice in 2012, claiming they faced repeated verbal and at times physical abuse, and some were pressured to have sex with male coworkers.

The company was also sued by workers who were Black, most recently in 2020, over allegations of racial hostility including a report of a noose found near a jobsite. The Brownsville construction company currently employs more than 8,000 employees. 

According to a February 2012 complaint, a male superior groped the crotch and inner thigh of a female employee "with such force that he caused her significant pain." It also alleged if she refused his demands for sex he would make sure she was "blackballed" from working on a pipeline job site located in Wyoming.

The complaint further contends after repeat incidents, the female employee reported the allegations to human resources and the male worker involved was eventually placed on paid leave after fellow co-workers corroborated her claims.

In a separate case filed in 2012, a female driver claimed her male coworkers repeatedly spoke about sexual encounters in front of her and she was given a sex toy and pornographic images as a birthday gift.

The employee asked her site superintendent if she needed documentation to file a complaint and was told it would be "taken care of," according to court documents. The female employee said she was forced to resign from Michels Corporation because of the company's "failure to address the ongoing, severe and persistent sexual harassment."

The family-owned energy and infrastructure contractor that operates throughout North America states in its employee handbook it "expects the workplace to be free from sexual, physical, psychological, verbal and non-verbal harassment" and the policy "applies to all individuals who work for Michels Corporation in any capacity at any location."

Michels, who's locked in a tight race with incumbent Democratic Governor Tony Evers, often touts his executive leadership at Michels Corporation on the campaign trail and helping expand the company's workforce to more than 8,000 workers.

"We know at Michels Corporation if you take care of people, good things will happen," Michels said during his primary victory speech in August. "And as governor, my number one priority is to take care of the hard-working people of Wisconsin."

A spokeswoman for Michels' campaign declined to comment on the allegations and deferred our questions to the company.

Michels Corporation said they are unable to comment on specific cases, but provided a statement about their policies regarding harassment and discrimination misconduct.

"Michels Corporation has always been committed to maintaining a working environment free of harassment, intimidation, and coercion at all of its locations. Any violation, of any type, simply put, is not tolerated," the company said.

"These policies have clearly set forth steps for the timely reporting of any violations. Our human resources and legal teams treat every allegation seriously, investigate all allegations and, as appropriate, take corrective actions to create a stronger workplace."

In 2014 and 2020, two former Black employees alleged they faced consistent racial discrimination while working on job sites in Missouri and Pennsylvania. In 2020, a male worker claimed his co-workers used the N-word and local police were called to a worksite after a noose was found in the area.

Company officials contend the noose was found beyond the jobsite through a public thoroughfare where protesters sometimes visited, court documents show. They also denied allegations of racial hostility.

A Black Louisiana man, who filed a lawsuit in 2014 alleging he was racially discriminated against at Michels Corp and was denied career advancements, anonymously spoke to CBS 58 and called his experience a problem running rampant in the construction industry.

"It was an industry that didn't want any women or minorities and I'll leave it at that," the man said. "I'm trying to move in my life."

The former welder also shared that while he wasn't pleased with how the case was settled, he doesn't hold any grudges against the company, instead the individuals he worked with.

"I don't think it should impact [Tim Michels] because he just owned the company," he said. "I'm thinking it's the industry you are in. I was the only Black guy at the pipeline and faced a lot of difficulties with it."

In response to the allegations, a spokeswoman for Tony Evers'  campaign said Michels needs to respond to questions about what happened at the company under his watch.

“Sexual harassment should never be tolerated, and voters deserve answers from Tim Michels about what went on under his leadership," Evers spokeswoman Kayla Anderson said. "Michels’ divisive rhetoric, radical beliefs, and refusal to lead show he’s the wrong choice for governor.”

CBS 58 reached out to all of the individuals named in the five lawsuits, including supervisors. Some declined to comment and others did not immediately respond to our request.

Tuesday morning, Tim Michels released the following statement on Twitter:

"These unproven allegations do not reflect the training and culture at Michels Corporation. Harassment in the workplace should not be condoned, nor tolerated, nor was it under Michels Corporation leadership.
Michels Corporation has a sterling reputation as one of Wisconsin's great, family-owned businesses with women in positions of leadership. Several generations of the same families -- men and women -- work their entire careers there.
This is a coordinated attack by Evers and his allies in the media. Shame on Governor Evers and others who are trying to destroy the reputation of a great Wisconsin company for political purposes.
These smears defame a great company, all in the name of politics. There's no place for that garbage here.
This election is a referendum on Tony Evers' failed leadership. These smears are a desperate and disgusting attempt to distract voters from Tony Evers' many failures."


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