How #MeToo Changed Workplace Sexual Harassment Law

On December 20, 2022, disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of three counts of rape and sexual assault in Los Angeles court.

The timing of this conviction — less than a month after the nationwide premiere of the biographical drama detailing the journey of the reporters who exposed Weinstein as an abuser in 2017 — carries no small amount of poetic justice.

The fact that the very industry where Weinstein’s abuse ran rampant could now produce a film like She Said seems to speak to the massive influence of the #MeToo movement in changing the culture of tolerance for sexual abuse in and out of the workplace.

But in spite of this global reckoning and the series of high-profile cases brought against a number of powerful individuals in entertainment, government, and athletics, countless women and men are suffering sexual abuse and harassment in workplace and professional settings in 2022.

Five years after #MeToo went viral, many may be wondering: how much has really changed when it comes to combating workplace sexual misconduct?

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the changes the #MeToo movement brought, the effect it had on the law, and what protections and recourse are now available to those who experience sexual harassment in the workplace. 

If you believe you have experienced workplace sexual harassment, please contact the employment attorneys at Ottinger Employment Lawyers today. 

What Effect Has #MeToo Had on Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Thanks to the courage of many survivors across the world who’ve spoken out about their experiences of harassment, employers, leaders, and institutions can no longer ignore the issue.

As a result, many organizations have instituted more rigorous education and training aimed at identifying misconduct in the workplace, as well as “zero tolerance” policies aimed at breaking cycles of abuse.

Notably, data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows that reports of workplace sexual harassment have not changed drastically over the past five years. In 2017, the year that #MeToo began, the EEOC received 12,428 sexual harassment claims.

This number rose to 13,055 in 2018 but then dropped to 10,035 in 2021. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which emptied offices around the world, very likely had an impact on this marked decrease in sexual harassment reporting despite greater awareness.

Unfortunately, the loss of a shared physical workspace did not necessarily curb instances of sexual harassment.

According to a 2021 report by AllVoices, an anonymous digital platform for reporting workplace misconduct, more than one-third of employees (38%) have experienced some form of harassment via remote channels, whether email, video conferencing, chat apps, or on the phone.

Additionally, only 50% of those employees surveyed who’d experienced inappropriate or harassing behavior actually reported it, citing fears of retaliation, inaction, or that they wouldn’t be believed.

On a more hopeful note, the EEOC data shows that sex-based harassment charges accounted for 27.7% of all harassment claims filed with the agency from 2018-2021 — a step up from the 24.7% they represented in the 2014-2017 period.

This suggests that #MeToo has kicked off a progressive trend encouraging workers to take legal action against instances of sexual harassment.

What Has Changed Legally Since the #MeToo Movement?

The deluge of stories of workplace sexual abuse that #MeToo triggered was a clear sign to employers and lawmakers that existing harassment laws were ineffective and in many cases outdated.

As a result, lawmakers across the country have begun passing long-overdue reforms to national and state protections for workers against harassment. 

At the national level, a rarely unified Congress passed two pieces of legislation in 2022 that represent significant victories in empowering survivors to speak out about their experiences and win some sort of compensation for the wrongdoing against them. 

The first bill, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021, allows employees to bring charges of sexual abuse against their perpetrators in a public court.

With the new law, survivors are freed from employer contracts mandating that any complaints of sexual misconduct must be settled through the relatively private arbitration process, which disproportionately favors employers and historically returns lower rates of recovery to claimants.

In December 2022, President Biden signed the Speak Out Act, which renders invalid non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses signed as conditions of employment when claims of sexual harassment and/or assault arise.

Like the previous law, this bill combats employers’ efforts to place preemptive blanket restrictions on workers in order to limit their liability when instances of sexual abuse arise. 

Since 2017, 22 states and the District of Columbia have passed more than 70 workplace anti-harassment bills. In 2019, New York was the first state to adopt laws preventing employers from including confidentiality provisions in harassment settlement agreements.

California enacted a similar law shortly after, which frees workers who’ve experienced sexual harassment and discrimination from the strictures of employer nondisclosure agreements.

Since then, both New York and California have adopted a range of laws aimed at expanding or strengthening existing anti-harassment protections through bills extending harassment protections to all workers.

These bills promote employer transparency, strengthen harassment prevention policies, and empower survivors to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. 

What Legal Recourse is Available for Individuals Who’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work? 

Unfortunately, these significant legal and social steps are a long way from eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace entirely.

But there are reasons to believe that the national climate is changing when it comes to winning recovery for survivors of sexual harassment via legal avenues.

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, there are significant opportunities available to you to obtain justice. 

In the past five years, the total amount of financial recovery won in sexual harassment claims has increased. According to the EEOC, survivors of sexual harassment won $61.6 million in legal recovery in 2021, compared to $46.3 million in 2017.

Notably, in March 2022, a California federal court approved an $18 million consent decree in a lawsuit the EEOC brought against video game company Activision Blizzard.

This lawsuit called for the company to pay out damages to employees who suffered the pervasive sexual harassment violations detailed in the charges. 

If you’ve experienced sex-based harassment at work, you can report a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to hold your employer accountable for failing in their duty to protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sex.

However, if you work for a company with fewer than 15 people, or if the misconduct occurred more than 180 days ago, you may need to turn to state or local avenues for registering a complaint.

Under New York and California state laws, workers who experience sexual harassment have up to three years to report workplace sexual harassment — for companies of any size. However, it’s in your best interest not to wait too long to report a claim.

The more time passes, the more you risk the loss of evidence or documentation that will be critical in determining the outcome of your case, including the amount of potential damages you could recover.

Contact a New York Employment Lawyer Today

The epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace is unfortunately far from eradicated. But five years after #MeToo, survivors should know that they are not alone in their struggle for restitution.

If you work in New York or California and have experienced sexual harassment, contact the team at Ottinger Employment Lawyers today to discuss the details of your case.

Our team of experienced employment attorneys can guide you through the reporting process, assess which federal, state, and local laws apply to your case, and advocate on your behalf for the recovery that you deserve. 

Author Photo

Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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