Editor’s note: This story contains graphic language and descriptions of alleged acts of sexual harassment. Reader discretion is advised.
Female employees of a Kingston-based developer say they were subjected to misogynist taunts, crude sexual behavior and other forms of harassment by Birchez Associates founder and managing partner Steve Aaron.
Their allegations are laid out in a lawsuit filed earlier this month a federal agency charged with combating workplace harassment and discrimination. It’s the second time a company run by Aaron has faced legal action based on his treatment of women employees.
“This behavior has impacted just about every female employee the company has had for a very long time,” said Equal Employment Opportunity Commission trial attorney Sebastian Riccardi. “This is an ongoing problem that affects lots of people.”
Aaron is owner of Birchez Associates. The company, founded in 2002, has built a number of senior housing complexes including Chambers Court in Kingston and the Birches in Saugerties. A second Aaron-owned company, Rondout Property Management manages the complexes. Both companies are headquartered at 104 Smith Avenue where the business grew from Aaron’s family’s building supply company.
The lawsuit focuses on claims by three women employed by the company between November 2018 and January 2019. Two of the women were hired as bookkeepers; the third worked in the company’s accounting department. All three quit within a few weeks of their hiring, citing Aaron’s behavior. That behavior, described in court papers, includes a steady stream of sexual comments directed at them by Aaron.
In one instance, Aaron allegedly told one of the women that his “dick may not always work, but my tongue will.” In other instances, the women claimed, Aaron placed his hand down his pants and fondled himself while speaking to them. One woman claimed that Aaron repeatedly showed her pornography on his phone.
The women also claimed that Aaron made repeated comments about their bodies in one instance remarking that he “felt like a kid in a candy store” when one of the women bent over. The suit also accuses Aaron of abusive and demeaning behavior including referring to the women with a vulgar term for female genitalia and shouting and throwing objects at them. The abusive behavior, the lawsuit contends, occurred on a daily or near-daily basis for the duration of their employment.
Complaints did nothing
The lawsuit alleges that the behavior continued even after the women complained to Aaron and Birchez Associates Chief Financial Officer Stephen Fell about their treatment. According to the lawsuit, attempts by the EEOC to negotiate a “conciliation agreement” with Birchez were unsuccessful.
The lawsuit seeks a court order barring Aaron and his employees from further acts of discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex. The suit also seeks unspecified monetary damages for emotional pain and suffering and loss of income. The suit also seeks punitive damages.
This is not the first time a company owned by Aaron has faced legal consequences based on his treatment of female employees. In 1995, two women employed by Aaron’s F&K Supply brought a federal lawsuit against the company alleging a remarkably similar pattern of behavior by Aaron. In 1998 a jury awarded the women $1.45 million. In an appeal to the jury verdict, attorneys for the company argued unsuccessfully that Aaron’s behavior did not amount to discrimination because he heaped abuse on male and female employees equally.
Representatives of Birchez Associates were unavailable for comment. The lawsuit is scheduled for pretrial conferences in October.