The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the way we work, but it didn’t keep sexual harassment at bay. Even with fewer people in offices, a dispersed workforce, and many interactions virtual for the past year, the problem has persisted and, in some cases, worsened. As women moved home to work, the harassment moved online to Zoom calls, emails, and texts. In in-person settings, perpetrators took advantage of emptier workspaces or were emboldened by a mask.
Remote Harassment Is Still Harassment
According to the EEOC, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advancements, requests for sexual favors, or verbal harassment of a sexual nature, all of which can occur online. Sexual harassment becomes illegal when it creates a hostile or offensive work environment.
The agency has yet to release statistics related to sexual harassment charges during the pandemic. The issue was, however, discussed at a recent EEOC hearing on the impact of the pandemic on civil rights in the workplace. As one speaker noted, the pandemic has created opportunities for increased sexual harassment and retaliation against those who report it.
In probably the most public case of online sexual harassment in the past year, Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker and legal analyst for CNN, was fired by the magazine for what he termed as an accidental exposure of his genitals during a work Zoom call. Toobin, who was reportedly masturbating, has stated that he thought audio was muted and video turned off. On the call with Toobin were staff from both the New Yorker and WNYC, a New York public radio station.
While the Toobin incident might be the most publicized, it is certainly not the only incident. A Pew Research study found that sexual harassment of American women online in all settings, not just at work, had doubled since the last survey in 2017. In 2020, 16% of all female respondents reported being sexually harassed online. Younger women were more likely to have experienced an incident of virtual sexual harassment, with 33% of women under the age of 35 reporting an incident.
Studies in other countries that were specific to the workplace also pointed to an increase in harassment. A survey of women working from home in the UK found that the pandemic had resulted in an upsurge of online sexual harassment, with harassers most often using online work platforms and social media. Almost half of the women experiencing sexual harassment said it was happening remotely, and 23% reported an escalation in incidences since working from home. One state employment commission in Australia reported an 8% increase in sexual harassment complaints since the pandemic began.
Pandemic Exacerbated Risk Factors
In addition to distance and a screen between individuals, online environments are often less formal than in-person work settings and set the stage for workers to feel more comfortable stretching the conversation or text to include a sexually suggestive joke or inappropriate photo. Add to that the fact that many employees working from home are doing so at odd hours, and sending texts, Slack messages, and emails sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Less supervision and more access could be a dangerous combination. These virtual work settings mimic risk factors identified by the EEOC as common for sexual harassment – workers alone, in isolated workplaces, working late at night.
During the pandemic, these same risk factors were often present when workers ventured into the office or workplace. With flexible hours and shifts, few employees were actually physically present at one time, setting the stage again for a harasser to potentially stage an inappropriate encounter.
Servers Report More Sexual Harassment from Customers
Female restaurant workers were already among the highest in terms of sexual harassment complaints prior to the pandemic, but recent reports point to a worsening during COVID-19 even with fewer customers and employees present. In a December 2020 survey of food-service workers, 40% of tipped workers noted a change in unsolicited sexual comments from customers. Hundreds of female respondents spoke of instances involving a male customer asking a female worker to take off her mask so the customer could calibrate the server’s tip to her looks.
At Barrett & Farahany, we are happy to answer any questions about sexual harassment. If you or anyone you know is looking for answers, please contact us to speak to one of our attorneys.