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'You Don't Forget' Incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace are nothing new, but in the wake of recent high-profile examples, it's a problem being looked at in a whole new way

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A recent study says one in three women have been sexually harassed in the workplace.
A recent study says one in three women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. - ()

“Rose,” a South Jersey native in her 50s, would rather not hear about her boss's sex life at work. But that, she said, is precisely what happened on a previous assignment. And as with other temp workers, she feels ill at ease about speaking up for fear of losing her job.

“ … It was more like retaliation. The more I complained, the worse it got for me,” she said. “With [my current] job, because it’s on an as-needed basis, they don’t even have to say anything. Everything’s done over email. They put out an email when the work is there. [And] because no one responds when you don’t get picked that time, I would never know if me speaking up is why I didn’t get hired.”

Her worries are not unfounded, hence use of the name “Rose” as an alias for the purpose of this story. In a series of jobs through the years, both full- and part-time, she said she’s experienced some form of sexual harassment at nearly every one. And she is not alone.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a study in 2016 saying that at least 1 in 4 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll via Langer Research, published in October, has it closer to 1 in 3, putting Rose in the company of roughly 33 million women.

Dana Britton, director of the Rutgers Center for Women in Work, has conducted numerous studies for more than 20 years on sexual harassment in the workplace. Her research dictates it isn’t a new problem, nor is it an old one.

“What’s really changed is not the incidence of this, it’s the attention to it,” she said.

'The nun is here'

Rose worked for several years at a now-defunct Atlantic City casino, first as a valet parking attendant and then a bet taker for horse races.

Her first memory of abuse was working as a teenage valet. She recalled an incident where a male attendant came into the booth where she was stationed and accosted her.

"I told the guy on duty and he just shrugged it off. That stuff you don't forget -- you don't forget the casual attitude of everyone."

"Rose," who says she was sexually harassed while working at a now-defunct Atlantic City casino.

“I don’t know if he was just angry with me, but he just grabbed my breast,” she said. “I remember slamming the door, and I don’t think I ever officially reported it, but I told the guy on duty and he just shrugged it off. That stuff you don’t forget — you don’t forget the casual attitude of everyone.”

When she got a job inside the casino, Rose said she opted for taking bets to create a physical barrier between her and the customers. She said the bet takers were paid significantly less than dealers, but at least she had a glass window between her and the often rowdy, drunken guests whom she heard making lewd remarks and observed touching female workers on the floor.

“I didn’t want to be where someone could touch me,” she said. “But that was before I even experienced sexual harassment in there, before I knew the employees would be such a problem.”

Rose spoke of constant sexual remarks and gestures by co-workers, but even more dangerous, she said, was the culture of retaliation against those who spoke up about it.

“The complaining made me really unpopular,” she related. “They would say, ‘The nun is here, you can’t talk in front of her.’ The other women I worked with were horrible to me about it. … [And when] there were openings for promotions, I was told that I wasn’t getting promoted because I ‘didn’t know how to keep my mouth shut.’”

"Rose" is still troubled by the workplace sexual harassment she's experienced over the years. - ()

These days, Rose is more cautious. As a temporary employee, she knows that to get the gig, she has to wear the gag.

“[Temp workers] are incredibly vulnerable,” said Rutgers’ Britton. “If the employer decides they don’t want them anymore, they just say, ‘don’t send them back.’”

'Controlled chaos'

Britton conducted a study in 2015 on the experiences of permatemp warehouse workers in New Jersey in collaboration with New Labor, an employment and educational organization comprised mostly of immigrant workers.

In the study entitled “Controlled Chaos: The Experience of Women Warehouse Workers in New Jersey,” 40 focus-group participants convened to discuss working in one or more of the myriad warehouses that house package goods coming in via the Port of Newark/Elizabeth. Sexual harassment, they said, was rampant.

One focus group participant shared the following about her supervisor, who she alleged continued making flirtatious comments to her even after she expressly requested he stop:

“I told him that I needed respect, and that I respected him, as an older man and as a supervisor. [Yet] I cannot go to the [manager’s] office. I have heard that if you go to the office, if you file a complaint, you get kicked out. ... That’s the reason why women don’t speak up — so that they keep their jobs.”

Another participant in the group, speaking about the daily physical sexual harassment that occurs on the lone bus employees take to job sites, said: “You call the [employment] agency and tell them what’s going on, and they say, ‘Well, that's the only [job] we’ve got. I got a lot of people waiting for jobs.’”

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the definition of sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual relations and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It most often manifests as harassment under two categories: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when submission of sexual demands is a condition of employment, whether implicitly or explicitly, leading the employee to perceive their job is on the line if they don’t concede to advances.

Hostile work environment occurs when an employee is subject to sexual, abusive or offensive conduct related to his or her gender that is severe or pervasive enough to make a reasonable person feel the conditions of employment have changed.

"It's the things that build up over time. It's the exhaustion of dealing with comments like this over and over since puberty."

Mariel, who witnessed harassment and says she was harassed when she worked at a bar

Mariel, a 26-year-old Hazlet native who used to tend bar, said she watched helplessly as management at a previous job disregarded situations of blatant unease. She witnessed a female co-worker’s discomfort when her bosses neglected to kick out customers who were making inappropriate comments about her colleague’s body.

“She said she felt really uncomfortable and unsafe, but the bar managers wouldn’t do anything — they know the bar needs to make money,” she recounted.

During one particularly stressful shift, Mariel herself felt disrespected by her customers. When she told a manager, she said he responded, “You’re so sexy when you’re angry.” She snapped back at his inappropriate comment.

‘It’s the things that build up over time. It’s the exhaustion of dealing with comments like this over and over since puberty,” she said. “It’s not like I’m crying into my pillow when my ass gets slapped by a stranger once. It’s just constant, and it’s grating.”

Some industries have a higher instance of sexual harassment than others. The restaurant industry’s is particularly high. A 2014 report from the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United found 90 percent of women in the industry experience some form of sexual harassment at work.

Of the more than 170,000 sexual harassment claims filed between 1995 and 2016 with the EEOC, over 10,000 involved full-service restaurants. By comparison, only 156 were from office administrative jobs.

Mariel has experienced sexual harassment at work in restaurants and at a lab.
Mariel has experienced sexual harassment at work in restaurants and at a lab. - ()

Mariel later worked in an overnight lab. She spent time with a co-worker off the clock, but when she realized he wanted to become intimately involved, she expressed disinterest.

“I took him aside to say I just wanted to be his friend, and the next time he worked with me, he followed me into the breakroom and kept trying to convince me to go out with him,” she said. “Like, come on. Please, take no for an answer. I’m not interested.”

That begs the question: Is asking out a co-worker inappropriate?

Trudi Curcione, a human relations business partner for Hackensack-based HR firm Avitus Group, says no — it’s when someone persists after being turned down that it becomes an issue.

“Now you’ve crossed a line and become a harasser,” said Curcione, whose firm helps companies develop comprehensive sexual harassment policies.

The Weinstein effect

Since October when The New York Times initially broke the story of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal in which dozens upon dozens of women came forth to accuse the Hollywood producer of alleged sexual harassment and assault, public conversation of the subject has spread like hot oil on a thin cloth.

“I had a woman yesterday tell me specifically that it was the news coverage that emboldened her to come forward and speak with a lawyer,” said Kevin Costello, a founder at Costello & Mains LLC in Mount Laurel who specializes in employment law.

Costello said he’s seen an overall uptick in women coming forward to tell their stories. That’s in sharp contrast to the 2016 EEOC study, which reported 75 percent of victims of hostile work environment don’t report anything.

Even in those instances, it’s an employer’s duty to address sexual harassment, according to Curcione.

“If you suspect a situation could result in harassment, it’s an employer’s responsibility to investigate. There could be other people involved who are too afraid to mention it or bring it up,” she warned.

And when your employee reports that they’ve experienced sexual harassment? Do more than just listen.

“When someone complains, take it seriously. That doesn’t mean they automatically believe the accuser. It means that you investigate,” Costello said. “It’s not always easy to do an investigation when you have two people going against each other.”

Costello explains the worst employers are the enablers.

“For a long-term, consistent problem to happen, it takes a lot of people to be evil enough to look away and let it happen,” he said.

But it most situations, employers who end up in legal trouble regarding sexual harassment aren’t evil — they’re just lazy.

“Open-door policies don’t work. They’re unspecific and don’t inspire people to think they’re going to be protected,” Costello said. “People don’t think like lawyers. They think illogically and nonsequentially.”

"There's always going to be abhorrent types, but we can facilitate a culture where they don't feel safe doing taht. When they look around and see they don't have allies, maybe they'll do better."

Kevin Costello, founder at Costello & Mains LLC

And that’s why, according to Costello and Britton, comprehensive sexual harassment policies make a difference. The presence of these policies work in multiple ways: Protecting people from harassment by letting others know it’s not OK; protecting victims from retaliation once they’ve reported instances of harassment; and protecting the employer from legal liability for the wrongdoings of its employees.

“Clear and transparent policies, accountability and a structure for reporting — there has to be someone with responsibility to make something happen, and there has to be protections for women who report it,” said Britton.

In the best-case scenarios, sexual harassment is prevented by the presence of these policies, and refreshers like yearly trainings and regular webinars.

“There’s always going to be abhorrent types, but we can facilitate a culture where they don’t feel safe doing that. When they look around and see they don’t have allies, maybe they’ll do better,” Costello said. “[The recent coverage] is a very real, organic thing that inspires people who feel they’ve been victims to come forward and lets people who think that they can [harass others] know that they can’t.”

So how will the broad social conversation on sexual harassment affect the workforce moving forward?

“It’s too early to tell, but it’s certainly a positive thing,” said Mike Merrill, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations and director of the Labor Education Action Research Action Network. “[Harassing] behavior withers in the sunlight. Not only will it be unacceptable to do this in public to the admiring crowd, it will also be unacceptable to do it in private — that you will worry to be found out. This is making sure people have a place to talk about it, so it will wither.

“It hurts us all when we give people passes. There are way more people silenced when we do that than empowered.”

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Gabrielle Saulsbery

Gabrielle Saulsbery

Albany, NY native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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