The EEOC sent a powerful signal last week that sexual harassment was still squarely on its radar filing 7 lawsuits against employers across the nation while reconvening its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.
“As the nation has seen over the past nine months, harassment at work can affect individuals for years in their careers and livelihoods,” said EEOC Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic in a press release announcing the filings. “There are many consequences that flow from harassment not being addressed in our nation’s workplaces. These suits filed by the EEOC around the country are a reminder that a federal enforcement action by the EEOC is potentially one of those consequences.”
The seven employers ranged from one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, to a 24 location tea, juice and fast food operation in California. Other employers included a staffing agency in Albuquerque, a commercial cleaning firm in Cincinnati, screening systems manufacturer, a California printing, mailing and fulfillment company, and a shipbuilder in Alabama that also was sued on racial harassment claims.
In making the announcement, Lipnic pointed out that roughly one-quarter of the EEOC’s litigation filed in recent years have included an allegation of workplace harassment. Almost one-third of the 80,000 to 90,000 discrimination charges the EEOC receives each year include a harassment complaint.
The suits were announced three days after the June 11th meeting of the EEOC’s harassment task force. Formed in 2015, task force co-chairs Lipnic and EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum issued a report in June 2016 detailing the group’s discussions and listed 7 findings. Among the most significant, the report said that workplace harassment rarely is reported, that “workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish” or to prevent it, and that training of workers and managers has had little effect in reducing instances of on-the-job sexual harassment.”
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The decision to reconvene the task force was prompted by the #MeToo movement. Calling it a “cultural awakening,” Lipnic said “the EEOC, and everyone involved in this, find ourselves dealing with many ‘second and third generation’ issues. By that I mean, legal and other issues that have emerged to the forefront of all the recent attention – critically important, often complex issues that are now demanding attention.
In a statement, Feldblum said, “Our challenge is to use this #MeToo moment well. We have a road map given the work we have done at the EEOC. We have the attention and commitment of the range of different actors in society that we need. Together, we can channel that energy to create significant and sustainable change.”
While the purpose of the meeting was to update the task force on current efforts to reduce workplace harassment and encourage victims to come forward, Lipnic noted that despite all the publicity surrounding the issue, the number of complaints to the EEOC has not significantly increased. “While our workload has increased on this issue for all of our offices, said Lipnic, “so far, we have not seen a big increase in charges filed.”