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Open Access Publications from the University of California

#UsToo: The Disparate Impact of and Ineffective Response to Sexual Harassment of Low-Wage Workers

  • Author(s): Ditkowsky, Marissa
  • et al.

“A guest placed a tip on the counter, then stated he wanted to ‘put the tip on my ass.’  I refused and he took the tip back.  I was going to tell management, but I didn’t because if he was going to be able to come back, what would stop him from aggressive acts in the future?  He looked like he didn’t care about life.”  This casino cocktail server’s disturbing account is one of many that UNITE HERE Local 1 collected in its groundbreaking study on sexual harassment and Chicago-area casino and hotel workers’ experiences in the workplace.  A hotel housekeeper recalled her experience, saying, “[The guest] was completely naked, standing between the bed and the desk.  He asked me for shampoo.  I had to jump over the beds in order to get to the door and leave the room.”

On October 5, 2017, the New York Times broke the pivotal story that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had covered up nearly three decades of accusations of sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact.  Following the coverage, women around the world became empowered to tell their stories on social media, contributing to the #MeToo trend.  Stories about sexual harassment and the use of nondisclosure agreements also fueled the movement.  However, there was one common denominator among all the individual stories that received considerable press attention: these women are all affluent celebrities.

Low-wage workers continue to face widespread harassment in the workplace, yet we constantly overlook these workers’ plight.  Despite #MeToo’s impact on white-collar employees and their ability to speak up for themselves, low-income workers do not benefit from the same protections that come with sheer bargaining power.  That is why it is so vitally important for the law to step in and protect these workers.  Low-wage workers are organizing, but lawyers must work as allies to empower them.  This piece is intended to serve as a reminder that there is a disparity between whom the law is intended to protect and whom the law protects in practice, as well as to provide suggestions as to how we might work to address these disparities.

The legal profession must take action to protect all workers—not simply those who are affluent enough to take large financial risks, afford the most prestigious attorneys, or singlehandedly start a trend.  Title VII, on its own, simply does not cut it.  In this Article, I argue that the largest barriers to justice and prevention of sexual harassment for low-wage workers include (1) terms of employment and contractual barriers, (2) lack of protection, (3) status barriers, and (4) access to justice concerns.

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