Combatting Workplace Sexual Harassment: From the Top Down

By Richard Cohen

The EEOC has long gone to bat for vulnerable workers, as readers of this blog know.  Indeed, it is one of the EEOC’s priorities set out in its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”).

Paddy, Harvest, Rice, Workers

I have written that in the many cases brought by the EEOC, “The common thread is the vulnerability of these workers: where they are powerless, have low-status jobs, fear the immigration laws, perhaps cannot speak English; are physically isolated in the job; or may be mentally or developmentally challenged.”

I bring this up now on the occasion of a forum this past weekend in Washington State, organized by the state’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which discussed sexual harassment of farm workers.  It was attended by the EEOC’s regional director, as well as representatives of agencies involved in supporting farm workers.

The local Yakima Herald  reported that an attorney in the local farm workers unit of the Northwest Justice Project said that “Statistics suggest four out of five women have experienced some sort of sexual violence on the job, she said, adding that women make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce in warehouses and packing sheds.”

The article says that “Examples from around the country have shown that workers — due to barriers such as language, lack of knowledge about whether sex is expected of them, and concerns that they could lose their jobs — may not immediately report they are being sexually harassed or assaulted.”

“All of that enables the predator,” said the EEOC’s regional director.

A few months ago I posted that “Lest urban folks feel a sense of being above or beyond this issue, I posted earlier that ‘This exploitation is not unique to rural areas in the South or West – on 12/5/15 I posted that the EEOC had just announced another such settlement ‘right here in New York’s summer playground for the global super-wealthy.  The settlement – for $582,000 – resolved a sexual harassment lawsuit by eight women against a commercial laundry service in the swanky Hamptons.’”

Moreover, I have exhorted employers many times that a harassment-free workplace must come from the top down, an argument made by Blanca Rodriguez, the local attorney quoted above.  “Until we have that, sexual harassment in agriculture is going to continue. I really, really believe that,” Rodriguez said in her remarks.

The article referred to her as commenting that she saw “three important factors for addressing sexual harassment or violence toward farm workers: litigation, education of workers so they know when to report inappropriate behavior, and an increase in services to keep victims safe and support their recovery.”

Takeaway:  Employers should understand that, from the top down, an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment tone and policy must be set, and all management personnel as well as line workers must be trained and educated in the basics of discrimination and harassment law and compliance and its application in the workplace.

Employers should not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form, and must make it clear by words and deeds that employees have the right to complain about such acts and that their complaints will be heard, investigated and, if good cause is found, remediated promptly.

This is not only basic humanity, and against the law, but as noted by the Yakima attorney, “it reduces liability and creates a safer workplace.”

The agricultural industry is not unique or alone in its being targeted as an EEOC priority:  it is simply an industry where workers may be at their most vulnerable because of the nature of that workplace.  Accordingly, extra attention to compliance must be paid by these employers.

Finally, as the attorney in Yakima said: “We all do have a role in ending sexual harassment.”





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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]