A recent incident in our town is eerily reminiscent of the 2011 Sandusky scandal, an event that burst open the bubble that small town living often creates. An event that hit so close to home—just 25 miles northeast on I-99—was hardly enough to remind us that child sexual abuse can happen in a place like Happy Valley. Just shy of three years later we face a situation involving children in our town, and we’re shocked all over again to realize that potential dangers and predators can be found in the heart of downtown Tyrone.
But I don’t want to talk about child sexual abuse. It’s a topic that demands more than a short editorial in the daily newspaper. Among the many issues that the incident raised, it’s easy to see why sexual harassment in the workplace was overlooked. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there were 11,364 complaints of sexual harassment filed in 2011 alone. I should begin by saying that of the 11,364 complaints filed to the EEOC, 84 percent were filed by women. In cases where men are victimized, most incidents are not reported at all. It’s important to remember that sexual harassment is an issue that pervades across many spectrums: sex, gender, race, religion, socio-economic status, and orientation.
In instances where sexual harassment in the workplace arises, there are federal and state laws to consider. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “it is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex.” This includes behaviors like unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any physical or verbal harassment of a sexual nature. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). These are the Hostile Work Environment and Quid Pro Quo clauses respectively, and an individual is considered to have experienced sexual harassment if the behavior meets the requirements of either clause. Additionally, an individual is considered to have experienced sexual harassment if he or she feels harassed (whether or not the sex-related behavior is illegal) under the psychological definition.
This is important to break down because it’s a lot of legal information to take in. Basically, sexual harassment occurs in any instance where a hostile work environment is created, employment decisions are adversely affected (of a sexual nature), or if the victim feels that s(he) has experienced sexual harassment. As of 2008, sexual harassment laws were revised to include these subjective and objective criteria.
In studies done by Chamberlain and colleagues, it was proven that physically demanding work increased the likelihood that men and women would experience jokes, put downs, sexual solicitation, threats, touching, and forced sexual contact. For many central Pennsylvanians, these are the majority of employment opportunities. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, there were approximately 2,500 new hires in the manual labor fields, which made up about half of the total new hires across all industries.
Of course there is no easy solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers should be made aware that the presence of a formal grievance procedure reduces the likelihood of sexual harassment. It is important to have policies in place that will address sexual harassment issues as they arise in the workplace.
For employees, it’s important to remember a few things about reporting and seeking prosecution for sexual harassment in the workplace. The way that the law is set up for employers and businesses in Pennsylvania requires incidents to be pervasive or severe in nature before the case can be taken to trial. However, the behaviors don’t have to be either for the employee to file a complaint with the human resources department or supervisor at the place of employment. It’s important to note that although the employer is required by law to investigate the claim, the business does not have to fire the harasser. The consequences for sexual harassment vary from employer to employer, which is why it’s important to know the company’s sexual harassment complaint procedures and policies. It is also important to be aware of deadlines for filing complaints. For example, federal law allows for 300 days after the incident occurs, but this number varies by state—you could have as few as 180 days.
There are many non-profit organizations that provide legal advice and representation at low costs, including your local Women’s Resource Center (services both men and women). If you are a student, often your activities fee at the university where you are enrolled will provide you with free legal representation.
More importantly than taking legal action is knowing when to quit. This decision might come with legal ramifications that could hurt a case, but it’s more important to protect yourself from the breeding ground of psychological effects that go along with sexual harassment. If at any point you feel that your health and safety are in danger, it’s time to think about removing yourself from the workplace setting and situation altogether.
Moving forward, I hope that we don’t face another incident of sexual abuse or harassment in our small town again. Because I know that it’s happened before—and something we are facing today—I am not naïve enough to think that is the end of the discussion; in fact, I hope it’s just the beginning of a discourse that will support and encourage community members to speak up.
-Spring 2014/Internship at The Daily Herald