The EEOC’s #MeToo Moment

by | August 20, 2018 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

The EEOC first convened its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace in 2015 and 2016.  The Task Force issued a report and several recommendations aimed at employers and the EEOC itself.

The Task Force’s 2016 report foreshadowed many of the issues that would later become central to the #MeToo conversation.  The Task Force chose to define harassment more broadly than the legal definition, noting that harassment includes behavior that “is detrimental to an employee’s work performance, professional advancement, and/or mental health,” and the Task Force report acknowledges the prevalence of “intersectional” harassment that touches on multiple parts of a person’s identity. The Task Force reported that harassment generally went unreported to management or, if it was reported, most complainants experienced retaliation.  The Task Force also warned of the danger of high-level leaders ignoring or tolerating harassment within the workplace.

Two years later, the EEOC and Task Force found itself facing a very different environment around workplace harassment.  The #MeToo movement brought harassment to the forefront and started a national conversation—outside of the context of the EEOC’s enforcement activities.

The EEOC reconvened the Task Force on June 11, 2018, ostensibly to catch up with the fast-moving conversation regarding workplace harassment. The meeting was titled, “Trans­forming #MeToo Into Harassment-Free Workplaces” and according to the Commission, the purpose of the meeting was to “delve[] into workplace harassment in light of the #MeToo movement, and discuss[] how employers can and have worked to better prevent and stop harassment.”

Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum said about the meeting, “Our challenge is to use this #MeToo moment well. We have a road map given the work we have done at the EEOC. We have the attention and commitment of the range of different actors in society that we need. Together, we can channel that energy to create significant and sustainable change.”

Only a few days after the convening, the EEOC matched its conversation with action in filing eight sexual harassment lawsuits against employers across the county:

  • EEOC v. Sierra Creative Systems Inc., No. 2:18-cv-05185 (C.D. Cal.) (Filed June 12, 2018).
  • EEOC v. Total Maintenance Solutions, Inc., No. 1:18-cv-00413 (S.D. Ohio) (Filed June 13, 2018).
  • EEOC v. G2 Corporation, No. 3:18-cv-01524 (N.D. Tex.) (Filed June 13, 2018)
  • EEOC v. Georgina’s, LLC, No. 1:18-cv-00668 (W.D. Mich.) (Filed June 15, 2018)
  • EEOC v. Tapioca Express, Inc., No. 3:18-cv-01217 (S.D. Cal.) (Filed June 11, 2018).
  • EEOC v. Real Time Staffing Services, Inc., No. 1:18-cv-00541 (D. N. Mex.) (Filed June 13, 2018).
  • EEOC v. New Prime, Inc., No. 6:18-cv-03177 (W.D. Mo.) (Filed June 13, 2018).
  • EEOC v. Master Marine, Inc., No. 1:18-cv-00269 (S.D. Ala.) (Filed June 13, 2018).

The press release announcing the lawsuits explicitly ties the filings to the Task Force and the #MeToo movement. Acting Chair of the EEOC, Victoria A. Lipnic, explained “[t]here are many consequences that flow from harassment not being addressed in our nation’s workplaces. These suits filed by the EEOC around the country are a reminder that a federal enforcement action by the EEOC is potentially one of those consequences.”

The lawsuits involve employers of various sizes and span across numerous industries including staffing agencies, restaurants, and transportation.  The lawsuits also include incidents of intersectional harassment including both race and sexual harassment.

The EEOC’s reconvening of the Task Force and aggressive litigation strategy around sexual harassment signals the agency’s awareness of the significance of the #MeToo movement and its willingness to use high-profile litigation to advance the goal of eradicating harassment in the workplace. While the Agency says it has not seen a significant increase in the number of complaints since the advent of the #MeToo movement, its highly publicized pursuit of harassment cases may encourage other harassment victims to utilize the Agency’s complaint process.