The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.
We are in the midst of a watershed moment in how we respond to sexual harassment at work. The #MeToo movement has created a demand for predators to be held accountable for their actions. Survivors are no longer overly-scrutinized and held to an unattainable standard, nor are the abuser’s actions ignored simply because they are good at their job. As we watch the dominoes fall in politics, media, and the entertainment industry, we will continue to see more and more outcry of sexual harassment in other industries, because as all women know—this happens everywhere. And while the focus has been on high-powered industries where the survivors are rich and glamourous women, we must not forget to listen to and defend low-wage workers. Because the truth is that the harassment that occurs on the casting couch is the same reprehensible harassment that happens in the back of the kitchen at your local restaurant.
Women make up the majority of the low-wage workforce in the U.S. and women of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs. These workers face rampant levels of harassment by coworkers, supervisors, and customers. Restaurant workers alone file the highest number of claims for sex harassment and retaliation with the EEOC than in any other field.
These workers face barriers in reporting their harassers at every turn:
- An African-American housekeeper, hired through a temp-agency, may fear being attacked by a hotel guest, but is warned by others to not raise this issue to her manager as he may label her as “difficult,” which will result in the temp agency banning her.
- A server receives lewd and graphic text messages by her coworker. When she approaches the manager he quickly dismisses her complaint because he is friends with the accused.
- The farmworker, who picks the pumpkins for our thanksgiving pies, may decide not to report a sexual assault because she knows it will result in the loss of her work visa along with future prospects for jobs the following summer.
The common theme in the reluctance to report is not only the likelihood of being called a liar, but of how dependent the workers are on their jobs. Women working low-wage jobs aren’t able to simply find new employment the next day. Often the heads of households, they are charged with child-care, which requires flexible hours–something most jobs don’t offer. They may work paycheck to paycheck–a very real circumstance when women are rarely paid an equitable wage compared to their male counterparts; and face an even wider gap if they are women of color. And for immigrant workers, the language-barrier or lack of status, makes it seem impossible to find a job that is free of violence.
At LAF, we represent these clients; workers who have suffered workplace sexual violence and are attempting to enforce their rights. We fight to help them achieve justice. We are also proactive by training other worker rights’ advocates at our annual Modern Day American Worker conference. Most importantly, we believe women when they come to us for help.
It should then be no surprise that we celebrate Time’s person of the year selection and see glimmers of our clients’ faces–the dishwasher, the factory worker, the custodian–on the cover. We hope you see them as well and that you take a stand to believe and defend them.