The EEOC says that “[p]rotecting vulnerable workers, including immigrant and migrant workers, and underserved communities from discrimination is one of the Commission’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) priorities.”

What is a “vulnerable worker?”

Workers are “vulnerable” to discrimination and harassment for many reasons and in many situations, mostly evidenced by their powerlessness and the low status of their jobs.

For example, they may fear running afoul of immigration laws; they may be unable to speak English; they may be physically isolated in the job, be it in a field or a warehouse; or perhaps they are mentally challenged.

In dark places, where there may be few witnesses, this evil grows.

Sexual harassment is, of course, like sexual assault, in that it has little to do with sex and all to do with power differential and misogyny. I’ve written many times before that “vulnerable workers” are more likely to suffer sexual assault and harassment.

A new settlement of an EEOC lawsuit illustrates this.

The operators of a Pennsylvania mushroom farm agreed to pay $200,000 in a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit in which the EEOC claimed “from at least 2007 until 2015, a female manager and two female employees … subjected eight female workers working in various mushroom-harvesting positions to repeated sexual harassment in the form of unwanted sexual touching and comments.” The EEOC also alleged that one of the workers who opposed the sexual harassment was disciplined and demoted.

The local EEOC Regional Attorney said that:

“Employers have a duty to protect their workers from sexual harassment. That duty includes providing antiharassment policies, complaint procedures, and training to workers in a form that is language accessible. We are pleased that this settlement provides monetary compensation to the claimants and includes comprehensive measures designed to protect all workers from unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.”

This is only one in a long line of cases filed and/or settled involving vulnerable workers. In a case settled early this year, a New Jersey-based shellfish harvester and processor and a Massachusetts staffing agency agreed to pay $675,000 where the EEOC alleged that women at the fishery had been subjected by their managers and line supervisors to “ongoing and egregious sex harassment since at least 2013,” which included “unwanted touching, solicitations for sex, and crude comments about female workers’ bodies.”

An EEOC attorney said then that “Even in the era of the ‘Me Too,’ movement, many employees, especially low-wage and immigrant workers, fear bringing complaints of sex harassment forward.”

In a second case in early 2019, the EEOC obtained a federal jury verdict in Florida of $850,000 on behalf of a female farmworker at a strawberry farm who allegedly was raped by her supervisor and reported it to police and management that same day.

Takeaway

Employers should understand that, from the top down, an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment tone and policy must be set, and all management personnel as well as line workers must be trained and educated in the basics of discrimination and harassment law, and compliance and its application in the workplace. Employers should not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form, and must make it clear by words and deeds that employees have the right to complain about such acts and that their complaints will be heard, investigated and, if good cause is found, remediated promptly.

These abusive and outrageous acts must stop.