Spurred by #MeToo, a Harassment Task Force Reconvenes

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WASHINGTON — While surveying Chicago hotel and casino workers about their experiences with sexual harassment on the job, Kasey Nalls had a conversation she said she would never forget.

A guest had returned to his room as a housekeeper was cleaning. When the housekeeper went to the bathroom to collect used towels, she found the guest naked.

“He was blocking her path to the door, so she had to barrel and run into him and jump over the bed just to get out of the room,” said Ms. Nalls, a casino cocktail server and a member of Unite Here Local 1, a hospitality workers union in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

Ms. Nalls was one of several legal experts, entrepreneurs, nonprofit workers and labor advocates who spoke Monday at a meeting held in Washington by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In light of the #MeToo movement, which has shaken Hollywood, politics and other industries, the commission reconvened a task force it had created two years ago as part of a broad investigation into workplace harassment.

Members of the task force discussed how to stop harassment for some of the country’s most vulnerable, and less visible, employees — including those who might face harassment not just from their co-workers, but also from customers and guests.

Even as thousands of women continue to speak out about their experiences with harassment, Victoria A. Lipnic, the commission’s acting chairwoman, said it had not received an increase in sexual harassment reports so far this fiscal year, which began last fall just as harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein were brought to light. In the 2017 fiscal year, the commission received more than 12,400 reports of sexual harassment.

“What I have heard a lot of is internally, employers have seen an uptick within their own internal processes, of people coming to H.R. complaining, that human resources has an uptick in investigations that they are conducting,” Ms. Lipnic said.

Though reports to the commission have not increased, there have been signs of increased awareness of the agency’s work. According to a commissioner, Chai Feldblum, the rate of online traffic on the agency’s website has tripled in the past few months. For Ms. Lipnic and Ms. Feldblum, who both led the original task force, the past nine months have provided the “cultural awakening” necessary for the commission to insert itself as a crucial player in the conversation happening in the news media and on social media.

In 2016, the commission, which is charged with enforcing federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination, released a report that found that “much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”

Since the report’s release, the commission has been busy providing employers new training programs that focus on respect and inclusivity rather than legal definitions.

But many employers have turned to more creative solutions for mitigating sexual harassment faced by their workers.

The union audit that Ms. Nalls helped conduct concluded in 2016 that among nearly 500 female hotel and casino workers surveyed, 58 percent of hotel employees reported being sexually harassed by a guest as did 77 percent of casino workers — results that would serve as the basis for a “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance in Chicago that involved, among other things, issuing panic buttons to housekeepers.

Erin Wade, a former labor lawyer who runs the restaurant Homeroom in Oakland, Calif., shared with the task force a solution that her business had created to deal with harassment. Three years ago, after a flurry of emails from employees reporting a customer’s poor behavior, the staff devised a color-coded system: Servers can label guests “yellow,” “orange” or “red” depending on the level of harassment, then discreetly notify a manager, who will take over the table.

“It’s empowering,” Ms. Wade told the panel. “There’s no justification needed to report a color. You also don’t have to relive what could have been a scarring experience for you, and you’re not feeling like you haven’t been taken seriously.”

And when there is a red on the floor and the customer is kicked out, Ms. Wade said, the customer usually responds sheepishly.

“We have not had aggressive situations where people are angry,” she continued. “They’re just not used to being called out.”

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