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#MeToo at Work

Our phone rings at the Vermont Commission on Women nearly every day with people calling looking for help, information, and support. Many of those calls come with stories about sexual harassment at work. We hear from people whose bosses or coworkers are harassing them; we hear from individuals who have witnessed harassment; we hear from employers who are looking for ways to protect their employees and cultivate a great workplace.

Some of the stories we hear reflect the kind of day-to-day behaviors that many people believe they just have to put up with at work: the restaurant customer’s inappropriate comments to the waitstaff; the vulgar jokes told by coworkers; the questionable photos being passed around on phones.

Some of the stories are hair-raising: the man who tried to get his coworker to take a shower with him; the coworker who asked a woman for photos of her breasts; the boss who wouldn’t believe any employee had ever been harassed.

The collective message we’re hearing is that sexual harassment is making it difficult or impossible for many Vermonters to do their jobs. Many are facing an untenable choice – put up with sexual harassment at work, or leave their job. For 80% of women who are sexually harassed, the solution is to leave within two years – a dramatically higher rate than women who are not harassed.

With polls estimating that over a third of women nationwide experience sexual harassment at work, this is an economic issue Vermont can’t afford to ignore. Every time someone cuts back their hours, loses time at work, or is driven out of their job, they suffer financially – and so does our entire economy. Employers suffer from increased absences, reduced productivity, higher employee turnover, and sometimes legal or settlement costs. The economic impact on women, in particular, is significant. 

Change The Story VT, our partnership with the Vermont Women’s Fund and Vermont Works for Women, includes sexual harassment as a driver of the gender wage gap in the new report Women, Work, and Wages in Vermont. CTS cites a state-by-state analysis that shows if Vermont women earned as much as “comparable men” — men of the same age with the same level of education, the same number of hours, and of similar urban or rural status — women’s higher earnings would bring in an additional $1.2 billion to the state economy. Ending sexual harassment is one way to begin to close the gap, which would benefit all Vermonters.

Thankfully, Vermont is at the forefront of legal protections for people experiencing sexual harassment. In 2018, the Vermont General Assembly passed one of the strongest laws in the country. Every Vermont employer must provide a workplace that’s free of sexual harassment, and anyone who is engaged for work or services is protected from sexual harassment. This means employees, but also interns and independent contractors.

All Vermont employers, no matter their size, are required to have a policy against sexual harassment, and to provide it in writing to all employees. They are also encouraged to conduct annual education and trainings on this topic.

Vermont now has some specific requirements concerning employment contracts and settlement agreements:

• It’s illegal for employers to require anyone to sign employment contracts that prevent disclosure of sexual harassment, or that waive rights or remedies in sexual harassment cases.

• If a worker is sexually harassed, and then settles out of court with the employer, the employer cannot prohibit the worker from ever working there again. This is called a “no-rehire” provision, and it’s been used in many places to block people from other jobs with the employer’s subsidiaries, branches, franchises, or other related entities.

• Settlement agreements must specifically state that the worker is not prevented from reporting the sexual harassment to a government enforcement agency or from participating in an investigation or trial related to a sexual harassment claim.

In addition to these protections, Vermont also has a comprehensive new resource for anyone who needs to know more about the laws, what their rights are, how to report sexual harassment, and how to cultivate fair and respectful workplaces. The Vermont Commission on Women, with the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, has created a website, https://workplacesforall.vermont.gov. This website is a one-stop shop for anyone facing harassment or other discrimination at work, or for anyone who simply wants to learn more. We’re excited to be able to refer our callers to this new resource. It’s a great tool in our continued fight for gender equity and support for Vermonters facing discrimination and harassment in our state.

This commentary first appeared in VT Digger's 1/23/20 edition.