Sexual Harassment of Vulnerable Workers – Early 2019 Edition

The number of cases of workplace sexual harassment has not gone down despite the bright light shining on it; on the contrary, the number has gone way up.

Sexual harassment is, of course, like sexual assault, in that it has little to do with sex and all to do with power differential and misogyny. And as I’ve written many times before, “vulnerable workers” are more likely to suffer sexual assault and harassment.

Protecting “vulnerable” workers is an EEOC priority

Workers are “vulnerable” to discrimination and harassment for many reasons and in many situations, mostly evidenced by their powerlessness and the low status of their jobs. For example, they may fear running afoul of immigration laws; they may be unable to speak English; they may be physically isolated in the job, be it in a field or a warehouse; or perhaps they are mentally challenged.

An EEOC press release stated that “Combating discrimination against agricultural workers falls within one of the priorities under the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”): protecting immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers.”

As I wrote before – think Henry’s Turkey workers who fit many of these categories and were ripe for exploitation. And the settled EEOC case where two potato packing companies in Colorado which allegedly permitted the sexual harassment of female workers by a supervisor had to pay $450,000 to settle the lawsuit.

Consider the suit brought by the EEOC against a South Carolina fast food restaurant on behalf of waitresses where the EEOC said: “This incredible case – where an abusive manager allegedly harassed one sister and then another – reinforces the crucial need for employers to take appropriate action to stop unwelcome sexual com¬ments and misconduct in the workplace.”

It was alleged that a male assistant manager subjected a waitress to harassment which “included comments about the size of her breasts, comparing salad dressing to semen, and propositioning [her] for sex.” To make matters worse, it is further alleged that the same assistant manager sexually harassed her sister, who started working there later, which “included comments regarding female genitalia and as well as propositions for sex.” The complaint alleged that “the assistant manager touched both women inappropriately.”

The New Cases

Ok, so I said that the number of cases of workplace sexual harassment of vulnerable workers has gone way up.

Here’s my evidence.

The EEOC recently settled with a New Jersey-based shellfish harvester and processor and a Massachusetts staffing agency for $675,000. Why? It was alleged that women at the fishery had been subjected by their managers and line supervisors to “ongoing and egregious sex harassment since at least 2013,” which included “unwanted touching, solicitations for sex, and crude comments about female workers’ bodies.”

An EEOC attorney said that “Even in the era of the ‘Me Too,’ movement, many employees, especially low-wage and immigrant workers, fear bringing complaints of sex harassment forward.”

In a second case, the EEOC obtained a federal jury verdict in Florida of $850,000 on behalf of a female farmworker at a strawberry farm who allegedly was raped by her supervisor and reported it to police and management that same day. The company

“failed to properly investigate the complaint, and instead sent the victim home from work without pay the next work day. … [and] took no action against the harasser, leaving him to supervise women in the fields, despite evidence that this was not the first complaint of sexual harassment. Instead, [it] retaliating against the victim and forced her to take a leave of absence.”

In a third case, the owner and operator of convenience store gas stations in the Mid-South settled with the EEOC for $100,000 after it was alleged that the supervisor of a female cashier propositioned her:

“frequently made sexually explicit comments and subjected her to inappropriate touching on several occasions. The cashier later complained to her store manager about the area manager’s conduct. … [but] the store manager told the cashier she could not help because she was being sexually harassed by the area manager as well. The area manager fired the cashier after she filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC.”

The EEOC also sued two Carmel, California restaurants alleging that a male line cook:

“suffered repeated groping of his private parts by the kitchen manager, cook and chef. When he reported the conduct to [the] owners, they dismissed the inappropriate touching by the kitchen manager and cook, claiming ‘they only play.’ But after he reported the chef grabbing his genitals, the chef became confrontational, yelling at the line cook, hitting him twice and aggressively scrutinizing and criticizing his plating of meals. [The] owners sought to discipline the line cook for leaving the restaurant after he became upset by the chef’s actions, so he quit due to the unchecked and ongoing harassment and hostility.”

The EEOC also alleged that a female dishwasher “faced daily sexual comments and physical touching by the same kitchen manager … The harassment included the manager sticking his tongue in her ear, sliding his hand up her shirt to grab her breast, and offering to pay her for sex. Although she informed another manager of the harassment, the sexual comments continued.

Thankfully, only two more cases to go …

An Italian restaurant in Orlando settled an EEOC case for $80,000 in which the EEOC alleged that the employer:

“created and encouraged a work environment in which unwelcome, sexually charged comments and conduct was permissible and commonplace, and which allowed for the repeated propositioning of a female bartender. She was asked to go on dates; described to restaurant patrons as single and available to date them; subjected to sexual innuendo; and told to dress ‘sexy’ and ‘date-ready.’”

Finally (finally!!), eight IHOP restaurants in Nevada and New York settled a case with the EEOC for $700,000 where it was alleged that there occurred “unwanted touching of a female server’s buttocks … [w]orkers also were subjected to vulgar insults and invitations to engage in sexual intercourse and women who complained about the harassment had their hours cut or faced similar retaliation, the EEOC alleged.”

Yikes, yikes, and … yikes!


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.

These abusive and outrageous acts must stop.

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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]