Sexual harassment and the protection gap for Chicago’s low-wage workers
By Sheerine Alemzadeh (8/21/2017)
From Silicon Valley to Fox News Studios, resignations from top executives signal growing discontent with employers who turn a blind eye to workplace sexual violence. Locally, several officials in Chicago’s water department have been forced to resign amid allegations that, among other things, black female employees were routinely subjected to sexist epithets.
But while a splashy ouster appeases public outrage, it does little to address underlying workplace norms that enable those with power to harass. Preventing sexual harassment requires disrupting this power differential, and that begins with strengthening protections for workers who are most likely to experience abuse.
Regardless of where we end up, most of us enter the workforce through low-wage service jobs. They are a critical acculturation experience that shape employees’ expectations of acceptable behavior throughout their working lives. The Chicago-based Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence, which I co-founded, just released a report detailing low-wage workers’ experiences of sexual violence and the inadequacies of existing responses to address it.
A nationwide study in 2014 of more than 1,200 restaurant workers by the Restaurant Opportunities Center found that 78 percent of women surveyed reported unwanted sexual advances by customers. Hart Associates recently surveyed over 1,200 female fast-food workers across the country, and found that 2 in 5 experienced sexual harassment.
In Chicago, hospitality union Unite Here surveyed almost 500 of its female members, and 58 percent of those working in hotels reported harassment by guests. These data suggest that most people enter the workforce through industries where workplace sexual violence is the norm.
Perversely, sexual harassment protections are weakest at these critical entry points to the job market. A few years ago, in a case originating from the 7th Circuit, the Supreme Court held that harassers must have hiring and firing power in order for their employer to automatically be on the hook for their actions. So lower-level supervisors can abuse their subordinates without necessarily creating liability for their employer. Law enforcement agencies have been less than clear with guidance around third-party harassment by customers and guests, making protections tenuous for employees in the rapidly growing service economy.
Local groups are working to shore up existing protections for the most vulnerable workers. In Chicago, Unite Here Local 1 is pushing an ordinance to strengthen hotels’ responses to guest harassment. The One Fair Wage campaign is organizing in Calumet City to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, so servers don’t have to endure customer harassment just to make their base wage. Members of Chicago’s Fight for $15 are pushing for a union in part to improve sexual harassment protections for fast-food workers. And domestic workers are educating their employers about the newly won Illinois Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which includes protections against sexual harassment.
Despite these efforts, media attention has mostly focused on dramatic consequences that have unfolded for high-profile harassers and the institutions that enabled them. This reactive approach does little to address the gaps in legal protection that create opportunities for harassers to abuse their power in the first place.
Somewhere along the way, a job experience teaches a person that harassment is OK. If local lawmakers are serious about addressing sexual violence, they should actively support policies that decrease workers’ vulnerability. These policies will not only reduce harassment in industries where it is most prevalent, but will promote a culture of dignity and respect that has the potential to influence other sectors of the workforce.
Preventing sexual harassment takes more than a shake-up in leadership and a promise not to do it again. It requires meaningful legal protections for all employees, from the corporate suite to the factory floor.
Sheerine Alemzadeh is co-founder of Healing to Action and the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence. She is a Chicago attorney.