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A Persistent Reckoning: Moving #MeToo into Increased Legal Protections for All Workers

Christina Piaia

NYC Commission on Human Rights

#MeToo movement’s resurgence in 2017 led to a global reckoning. It brought widespread sexual harassment into the public eye and propelled reform in worker protections. Founded in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to support survivors of harassment and abuse, #MeToo became a universal and unifying movement when survivors joined together on social media in response to allegations of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein. This movement catapulted national discussions into legislative action, increasing awareness of workplace climates where 85% of women report experiencing sexual harassment.

Bolstered by community and activist support, #MeToo led to vast and encouraging legal reform at the state and local levels. The National Women’s Law Center reports that 230 bills have been “introduced in state legislatures to strengthen protections against workplace harassment and a remarkable 19 states enact[ed] new protections.” These changes include expanding sexual harassment protections, requiring regular and consistent anti-harassment trainings, and stopping forced arbitration.

In particular, New York City passed the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act, which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law on May 9, 2018. The legislative package expands provisions of the NYC Human Rights Law in cases of gender-based harassment, increasing the statute of limitations from one year to three years and extending protections to all employees, regardless of the size of their employers. Annual interactive trainings on anti-sexual harassment are also now required for businesses with fifteen or more employees. These training must include specific information about retaliation—a major obstacle experienced by those who report sexual harassment. Helping employers recognize impediments to reporting harassment and training bystanders to intervene are also part of the mandatory training.

This legislation, in part, was enacted in response to the brave and telling testimony given during the NYC Commission on Human Rights’ 2017 Workplace Sexual Harassment Public Hearing—the first of its kind to be held in 40 years. At the hearing, members of the public heard compelling testimony from diverse members of the labor force, including domestic workers and workers from sectors such as the construction industry that historically have excluded women. Calls to action following this hearing led to numerous legislative changes brought forth in the Stop Sexual Harassment Act—namely, to expand protections to all employees and extend the time to file a complaint from one to three years. This is a crucial example of how testimony and reporting on these discriminatory practices leads to tangible change.

Despite notable progress at the state and local levels, additional legal reform and workplace protections are crucial to build on the momentum galvanized by #MeToo. Increased awareness and robust “know your rights/obligations” trainings are essential to safeguard all workers from sexual harassment and retaliation regardless of the industries they work in or the communities they live in.

The pandemic’s devastating social and economic effects exposed the deep inequalities facing women in the labor force, especially low-wage workers and women of color. In fact, sexual harassment has seen an uptick during the pandemic, in particular, among the tipping service industry where over 40% of workers have experienced increased sexual harassment, according to a survey conducted in five states. As businesses shifted to remote work, so did workplace harassment. For example, a survey of tech workers found that 1 in 4 workers experienced increased gender-based harassment since remote work began during the pandemic.

This is a pivotal and crucial time to build on the momentum spurred by #MeToo and combat all forms of sexual harassment. To this end, ensuring equal protection under the law for all workers requires:

  • Removing barriers to accessing justice that often disproportionately affect low-wage workers and women of color by ensuring that employers of all sizes and in all sectors are similarly held accountable for gender-based discrimination and retaliation. In addition, reform should eliminate employers’ use of forced arbitration, which often serve as a barrier to fair and transparent proceedings for employees. By eradicating forced arbitration, employees are given agency to choose where to bring a harassment or discrimination claim, and it allows for workers to collectively seek relief. NYC Commission on Human Rights recently entered into a landmark conciliation with Fox News Network in a Commission-initiated investigation involving allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation. As part of the conciliation Fox News is required to forgo mandatory arbitration where New York City human rights claims are alleged by its employees for the next four years. This conciliation will hopefully serve as a model for future settlements across the country in resolving harassment and retaliation claims.

  • Challenging existing power structures and systems that perpetuate a climate of gender-based harassment at all levels and sectors of the workforce. These efforts should include interactive and comprehensive training for all employees with clear guidelines on how to report harassment and a process to report anonymously.

  • Recognizing and addressing the intersectionality of other forms of discrimination that often overlap with sexual harassment such as race, national origin, and citizenship status and incorporating awareness and training that includes examples of intersectionality.

  • Allocating meaningful funding to increase outreach and know your rights/obligations trainings for all sectors of the labor force and to organizations that support workers with a focus on women’s rights, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrant communities and access to justice.

To fully move #MeToo into a landscape where individuals are free from gender-based discrimination and retaliation, efforts to continue awareness about, advocacy for, and reporting of these destructive practices must remain at the forefront. As we witnessed from the powerful accounts shared by individuals during the #MeToo movement and at public hearings such as the NYC Commission on Human Rights public hearing, so often the voices, experiences and brave testimony of survivors lead to change. However, this burden must not be solely on survivors; all of us must play a part to elicit action and change with a shared commitment to eliminate sexual harassment and retaliation in all workplaces.

Christina Piaia is a Supervising Attorney of the Gender-Based Harassment Unit at the Law Enforcement Bureau of the NYC Commission on Human Rights. At the Commission, Christina works extensively on claims involving gender-based discrimination, including sexual harassment in the workplace. As part of her work, Christina engages in wide-ranging outreach efforts to educate the public, particularly low-wage workers, about their rights in the workplace. Prior to joining the Commission, Christina spent three years as an international human rights attorney, working on the ground to eradicate early, child, and forced marriage in Guatemala, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Malawi. Prior to her international work, Christina focused on litigation in the practice area of family law and as a journalist for The Associated Press. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry and a JD degree with a concentration in human rights. As a passionate public interest attorney, Christina proudly serves on the board of The Chris Hondros Fund and Too Young To Wed.

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