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Sexual Harassment and the Future of Worker’s Rights

July 10, 2019

What does the #MeToo Movement Mean for Employment Rights?

By Jordan Kostelyk

Law Students on Workers’ Rights Series

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

The biggest future issue I foresee in worker’s rights is sexual harassment. I say this because people are done with hiding such acts. In the past, sexual harassment was something to not be discussed and even victims were often looked down upon. But even now change is occurring and all one has to do is look at famous movements like #MeToo. In this essay I plan to use legal cases as well as my personal experience to argue that sexual harassment represents the biggest future issue in worker’s rights.

In 2012 possibly the largest settlement in U.S. History in a sexual harassment case was reached. The case was Ani Chopourian v. Catholic Healthcare West. Chopourian had filed complaints with the company for two years that one of the surgeons had made sexual comments and touched her inappropriately. These complaints were filed to no avail until she finally went to court. A year earlier another major sexual harassment case had been won, Ashley Alford v. Aaron’s Rents, just like the above case the company did next to nothing to protect her until she was physically attacked by her manager. 

These two cases demonstrate to me that in the past, even if victims did report sexual harassment little was done and it was allowed to go on for years. Now as time is going on it is evident that if the company doesn’t care the courts certainly do care. I believe as people start to see the currently settled cases they will see that there is another avenue for them to find relief for these workplace abuses.

The second part to this is my personal experience. I have only been employed for the past four years and have been sexually harassed at three different jobs. And at two of the jobs I reported the abuse to the companies which was eventually settled. I have had a male supervisor ask me out on a date as well as a male supervisor who talked about marital problems. I have even had a male coworker touch my leg without my consent. However, what held me back from reporting was a fear of being ignored and that my complaints were not important. It was only through help of my mom that some of the sexual harassment was reported. I think that if this has happened to me in such a short period of time is greatly possible that it is happening all over the country. 

Also, if I felt that it was possibly unsafe to discuss such behavior than how many other people also kept things hidden? I firmly believe that it was a blessing that my harassment occurred during recent years. It occurred during a time when it was much safer to report to companies and they looked more seriously upon such behavior. But it is unfortunate for me to say that many people did not report their harassment during such times. And more often than not when they reported things they were told it was not important or that they were making a big deal out of nothing. The scariest part is that a lot of people fear losing their jobs. So the question is whether to report and lose your job or to keep quiet at a seemingly “small” cost?

As this revolution continues in the country and people continue to become braver to report sexual harassment that has occurred in their workplaces, I believe we will see an influx of cases. These are not things that will be recent they will be things that have gone on for years or even years ago but just now are coming to the surface. And that in combination with new occurrences will push cases forward. If workplaces continue to not place priority on sexual harassment or deny the severity then the only place to turn will be the justice system. Although, I see that with these movements companies are becoming more willing to place importance on such complaints it appears to be mostly out of self-preservation.

Which to me signifies that companies will do the least they feel they must to settle a person’s complaints. If you look at the cases with Alford and Chopourian, they were mostly given flowery talk each time they previously complained to their companies. Thus, as these cases demonstrate, sometimes talk is not enough and action is what needs to take place. This is an exciting time for worker’s rights. Previously we saw the fight for women to even be able to hold jobs, with the unspoken message that women should be so grateful to have a job that they should tolerate harassment. Now, we are pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and looking for justice in unfair situations. We are unwilling to tolerate what shouldn’t be tolerated.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Jordan Kostelyk brings together case law and her personal experience to ask how the #MeToo movement will shape workers’ rights. As she argues, the increased public attention means employers often take stronger stances against workplace sexual harassment. Similarly, state legislatures across the country have strengthened sexual harassment laws. Most notably, in June 2019, the New York legislature greatly expanded sexual harassment protections, including instituting a new standard for hostile work environments that benefit employees. Education remains an important part of protecting workers from sexual harassment, which is why Working Now and Then created a video with advice on proving workplace sexual harassment.

Jordan Kostelyk graduated from Central Washington University in 2018 with a law and justice major. She joins Seattle University School of Law as part of the class of 2022.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients.

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