Norma Izaguirre poses for a portrait outside of a home she was cleaning, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.
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Norma Izaguirre still has trouble sleeping. For months, she felt like she was being trailed, certain that the man who she says raped and repeatedly sexually assaulted her at work would follow through on his threats to hurt her and her family after she reported the abuse.
Her anxiety has eased since Diego Medina, 30, who faces charges of felony rape and sexual assault in Dakota County, left town and went back to Mexico. But she’s still scared he could come back.
Izaguirre says Medina helped her get a job at Absolute Drywall, a company with a checkered past of labor violations and currently under investigation by state regulators for wage theft, as the Reformer first reported in May.
The two met in a Minneapolis restaurant and struck up a conversation that eventually turned to work. Izaguirre told him she cleaned houses, but work had largely dried up in the pandemic and she was struggling to make money.
Medina told her Absolute Drywall needed workers for a major contract: sheetrocking hundreds of apartments at Viking Lakes, a sprawling multi-use development the Wilf family — owners of the Minnesota Vikings — built around the team’s new headquarters and training facility in Eagan.
Izaguirre was hired to clean up after the other workers finished — hauling out garbage and sweeping up dust. It was one of the lowest-paying jobs on the site and at times degrading, like when she had to clean urine from bathtubs and pick up urine-filed bottles left by workers with nowhere else to relieve themselves.
The job promised more than she made cleaning houses — $18 an hour — although like many of her coworkers, she says she was rarely paid for all the hours she worked. Izaguirre has filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry for thousands of dollars in wage theft, along with about two dozen others who worked on the Viking Lakes project.
Several months after she started, Medina started making sexual advances, Izaguirre said.
“He wanted to hug me, wanted to touch me,” Izaguirre said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I didn’t like that. I wanted to work.”
Izaguirre said Medina would seek her out on the job while she tried to avoid him. One day on the Viking Lakes project, Izaguirre said she was bending over to clean out a bathtub when Medina came up behind her and pressed himself against her. She says she spun around and told him not to touch her.
But Medina pushed her into the shower and raped her, according to criminal charges filed by the Dakota County Attorney’s Office.
He threatened to hurt her if she told anyone and said no one would believe her, according to charging documents.
Izaguirre did tell someone about the abuse. She says she immediately told Guillermo Huerta, her supervisor, that Medina was bothering her. Huerta told her he would investigate and talk to Medina about it.
Huerta said in an interview through a Spanish interpreter that Izaguirre told him Medina was bothering her outside of work. He said he spoke to Medina, who showed him text messages indicating the two were in a consensual relationship. Huerta said he doesn’t have copies of the text messages.
In a six-page response to a complaint Izaguirre filed with state Department of Human Rights, Absolute Drywall called it a “consensual relationship turned sour.” A lawyer for Absolute Drywall did not respond to questions about the allegations or the criminal charges.
Emails to Lester Bagely, a spokesman for the Minnesota Vikings and MV Ventures, were answered from a generic MV Ventures email address saying the company was unaware of the allegations and had not been contacted by law enforcement. MV Ventures also said it has not been contacted by state authorities about the wage theft complaints workers say they filed last year.
Women working in blue-collar, male-dominated industries are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. Construction remains the most male-dominated industry — even more than mining and manufacturing — with just one in 10 workers being women. Women in construction also often work in isolation, heightening the risk for abuse.
Labor advocates say sexual abuse goes largely unchecked in the non-unionized construction sector, where other labor abuses such as wage theft and payroll fraud run rampant and enforcement is rare. Many of the workers are immigrants, which also makes them vulnerable to abuse. When businesses do face consequences, the penalties are seldom severe enough to force a business to change, let alone an industry.
Accurate data on sexual abuse at work is hard to come by, since it so often goes unreported. One frequently cited survey from 1992 found 57% of female construction workers had been touched or asked for sex on the job. Another survey from 2021 found 57% of female construction workers were either sometimes or frequently sexually harassed.
Although union workers aren’t immune from abuse, they do have a grievance process and are more likely to have advocates to bring their complaints to company owners and law enforcement. The building trades also have their own processes for handling abuse complaints, which, though imperfect, offer a clear avenue to seek redress.
Izaguirre only filed her complaints with police and the state Department of Human Rights after connecting with representatives from the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.
The carpenters’ union was investigating working conditions at the Viking Lakes project since union contractors were passed over for the work.
The Vikings have a long relationship with trade unions. The Vikings worked exclusively with union contractors on U.S. Bank Stadium, Omni Viking Lakes Hotel, TCO Performance Center and TCO Eagan’s medical office building and sports medicine center.
When the company decided to use non-union labor for the apartment buildings at Viking Lakes, the carpenters’ union warned the lower price tag is usually paid for through labor abuses like wage theft. The union cautioned Vikings executives about Absolute Drywall, pointing to multiple federal and state citations for labor violations, including employing a 14-year-old to work more than 50 hours a week.
When MV Ventures moved forward with Absolute Drywall, the carpenters’ union asked that labor advocates be allowed on the site to watch for abuse and harassment. MV Ventures declined, according to the union.
At the time she was working for Absolute Drywall, however, Izaguirre was on her own.
After she first reported the abuse, Absolute Drywall didn’t have a human resources professional investigate. Instead, they sent Huerta, a male supervisor who Izaguirre and other former Absolute Drywall workers say verbally abused them. Huerta denies it.
Izaguirre said the company would sometimes send Medina and her to separate job sites. But he would still show up and continued to harass and assault her, according to Dakota County charging documents and her human rights complaint.
Once she was cleaning bathtubs at a job site in Roseville when Medina approached her from behind and said he would pay her for sex, according to her Human Rights complaint. Izaguirre said he reached to grab her but she pushed him away and threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave her alone.
After that, Izaguirre said Medina groped her again while she was bending down to pick up a piece of scrap drywall, according to the Human Rights complaint. Izaguirre said she sprung up and grabbed a broom to beat him away, but he just walked away laughing.
Another worker for Absolute Drywall, Guillermo Macario-Alcocer, said he witnessed some of the abuse. He said he saw Medina grope her, and he saw Izaguirre push him away.
Macario-Alcocer says he told Medina to leave her alone, and Medina asked if he wanted to have sex with Izaguirre, too.
“(I told him) he was crazy and sick,” Macario-Alcocer said in an interview in Spanish through an interpreter.
Izaguirre, who has work authorization and has been in the country for 23 years, said she thought about quitting but didn’t have a car and needed to keep earning money to pay her bills and help her family.
After reporting the abuse to her supervisor, Izaguirre said she finally brought her complaints to Absolute Drywall’s owner, Daniel Ortega. But she says he replied that she was in a consensual sexual relationship with Medina.
“I said, ‘That is a lie,’” Izaguirre said. “He didn’t believe me.”
Izaguirre told police Ortega threatened to fire her if she continued complaining. Soon after, she was. Ortega told her there was no more cleaning work.
In Absolute Drywall’s response to Izaguirre’s complaint with the state Department of Human Rights, Ortega denies that Izaguirre told him about sexual assault at their meeting. He said she just complained that her hours were being cut and Medina had not be fired.
In the company response letter, Ortega did acknowledge receiving a complaint from Izaguirre in July 2021. Ortega said Izaguirre complained of harassing comments but not assault. According to the letter, Ortega confirmed he had Huerta and another employee investigate.
Huerta reported back to Ortega that Izaguirre and Medina had a consensual sexual relationship outside the workplace, and that “no one had seen them touching one another in the workplace.”
“It is plausible that the alleged harassment was in fact consensual moments between intimate partners,” the letter states. “Izaguirre was, according to coworkers, upset when the relationship ended and she may have re-framed the interactions as nonconsensual after the fact.”
The company said in its letter to state investigators that Izaguirre was the one who created a hostile work environment by refusing to do cleanup work and instead demanding other kinds of work. According to the company, Izaguirre was fired because there wasn’t any “scrapping work” that she demanded, not because she reported being sexually assaulted.
Izaguirre said she did tell Ortega she didn’t want to clean bathtubs because they were often filled with urine and other excrement.
The letter states that Medina was let go around the same time as Izaguirre and more than 50 other workers in September 2021, after the company finished work on the Viking Lakes project.
After being fired by Absolute Drywall, Izaguirre was jobless for two months but now has work again cleaning houses.
Through filing complaints she hopes to be made whole financially. She could also win a monetary settlement through her discrimination complaint, but Izaguirre says she doesn’t want money.
“I don’t want this to happen to any more women,” Izaguirre said. “You have to report it, denounce it to the authorities so the same thing doesn’t happen again.”
Her hope is waning, however.
Izaguirre filed a complaint with the Department of Human Rights nearly five months ago and hasn’t seen any progress in the case except the response Absolute Drywall’s lawyer sent in August. She says she also hasn’t seen anything come of her complaint of wage theft with the state Department of Labor and Industry.
Neither department confirmed ongoing investigations.
Although there is a warrant out for Medina’s arrest, it’s possible he’ll never be arrested — let alone stand trial.
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