Wine sales employees suing Nappi Distributors, alleging unequal pay, hostile work environment
Jan. 16—She was the first female sales representative hired by a Gorham distributor of alcoholic beverages.
But when Nappi Distributors offered Michele Tourangeau the job in 2015, she was told she would be earning a 2% commission rate — less than male coworkers who were hired before her, according to her complaint.
Tourangeau is one of two women suing Nappi in U.S. District Court, alleging the company has a history of unequal pay practices and created a hostile work environment.
A U.S. District judge ruled in November that Tourangeau's case could proceed to trial. A jury trial has been scheduled for Feb. 27.
Helena Donovan, who filed her complaint in March 2021, more than a year after Tourangeau, says she was subjected to harassment that got worse after she reported it. Donovan said most of it stemmed from her being a gay woman in a mostly straight, male workplace.
"Nappi has a problem of unequal pay practices and discriminatory treatment of women," the women state in both complaints, filed by Kennebunk attorneys Danielle Quinlan and Laura White. "Nappi has engaged in unequal pay practices that disproportionately affect female employees and perpetuate previous discriminatory hiring practices."
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock is still considering whether Donovan's claims should proceed to trial. Nappi Distributors did not respond to phone calls from the Press Herald seeking to discuss the allegations. The company's lead attorney, John Wall, was not available to comment until next week according to his co-counsel, Laura Maher, at the Portland law firm Monaghan Leahy.
Tourangeau had more than 20 years of experience in the industry, according to court records. A wine supplier in New England who told her about the job said they heard someone at Nappi say that the company "really needed to start hiring women."
Tourangeau's sales route consisted of a little more than 100 businesses in Kennebunkport, Wells, York, Kittery and Elliot. It was very seasonal. Many of her accounts close for the winter or generate fewer sales because there are fewer tourists.
To make up for this, Nappi offered her a base salary of $22,500 on top of commission. But she was told in 2018 that the company was going to stop offering its sales employees base salaries without providing another viable solution to make up for the lost income, according to the complaint.
Nappi said in court records that they were still paying Tourangeau a base salary as of November 2020, although they were in the process of tapering that off.
Tourangeau would later learn that the person who hired her had offered a man the same position with a 3% commission rate, despite a company-wide shift to 2%. According to court filings, that hiring manager has since said that Nappi's president was "furious" he made that initial 3% offer.
Tourangeau also claimed that the company never paid her for extra work she did before taking time off to have a baby, and that some of this pay went to other employees. Nappi did not appear to have a maternity leave policy in 2016, according to court records.
Tourangeau took an unpaid leave of absence and elected to use short-term disability. While Nappi said there was never any guarantee she would receive additional wages for extra work during this period, Tourangeau was available to all of her clients and the sales assistant who had taken over Tourangeau's route visited her home at least five times while she was on leave, the complaint says.
Some male colleagues were apparently upset with her absence. One male colleague told another that "we should not hire women because you have to cover their maternity leave," Tourangeau's complaint stated.
Nappi hired Donovan in December 2013 as a purchasing manager for the company's wine department. She was offered less than her male predecessor, who told her he was "grandfathered" in with a higher rate of pay.
About five months later, Nappi changed her title to purchasing agent — which came with fewer benefits but the same work requirements. She could no longer use a company car and she was no longer eligible for manager bonuses.
She ultimately worked for the company for about six years, during which she faced severe harassment from a female assistant who degraded her mental health and led to a suicide attempt on the job in 2017. She took six weeks off and was hospitalized, according to the complaint.
Donovan had reported the harassment to Nappi Human Resources Director Christine Fox, saying the assistant did not treat men with the same disdain. But the company failed to take action, Donovan's complaint states, and the harassment only got worse after Donovan returned to the office.
Donovan later confided to a male colleague that she was gay. He advised her against telling others in the company.
"Do you know anyone at Nappi that is gay?" Donovan remembered him asking. "No. Why do you think that is?"
She told people anyway, and more employees joined in on the bullying and subjected her to "inappropriate and sexually harassing jokes," the complaint alleged.
Donovan's mental health worsened and she asked Fox if she could take time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Fox, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuits, allegedly declined to provide Donovan that information, "even though it was obvious that Donovan's mental health was declining, and she expressly asked to go out on medical leave."
In December 2017, Tourangeau said, Fox berated her for the allegedly messy condition of her company vehicle and damage to the side of the car. When Tourangeau apologized, the HR director accused her of being "passive aggressive."
"Fox then continued to harass and intimidate Tourangeau and then said Tourangeau should have her medications checked because there was probably something wrong with her hormones after she gave birth to her daughter," the complaint states.
A male employee had been involved in numerous accidents with his company vehicle and was once seen driving while intoxicated, the complaint states, but he was not berated or intimidated the same way.
Tourangeau said she met with her supervisors about it. They suggested Fox might've been holding a grudge against Tourangeau for complaining about her pay for sales revenue earned during her maternity leave.
By 2019, Donovan got the sense that Nappi was trying to "force her out of the company." She received a 120-day performance expectation memorandum, which Donovan said she made a good-faith effort to meet "even though Nappi had been interfering with her ability to complete the job."
She resigned in October 2019. Tourangeau still works for Nappi.