Low-Wage Workers Aren’t Getting Justice for Sexual Harassment

Despite the #MeToo movement, poor women often find that speaking out against abuse at work is too costly.

Participants in a #MeToo march in Los Angeles (Damian Dovarganes / AP)

The man who Sandra Pezqueda says sexually harassed her and ultimately got her fired has never been disciplined for his actions. That’s even though the man, who was her boss when she worked as a dishwasher and chef’s assistant at the luxurious Terrenea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, beginning in 2015, persistently switched her schedule so she’d be working alone near him, repeatedly offered to give her more hours if she’d go out with him, and twice tried to kiss her in a storeroom at work, according to Pezqueda. That’s even though, when she complained about his behavior to the staffing agency that employed them both, Pezqueda says supervisors began seeking reasons to fire her, eventually letting her go in February 2016. “I knew if I spoke up there would be retaliation,” Pezqueda, now 37, told me. “That’s why other women never speak up about what happened to them.”

For all the Harvey Weinsteins, Al Frankens, and Russell Simmonses who have lost their jobs after allegations surfaced of sexual harassment, there is a sobering truth often lost in the #MeToo movement—the push for accountability has class dimensions. Many other less famous men, who have harassed women in less high-profile fields, have not been held accountable. Virtually all of the men who have been publicly excoriated for their conduct have worked in industries like Hollywood, or politics, or law, that the public tends to study with laser-like focus. “If an employer isn’t worried that there’s going to be some huge public-relations issue stemming from harassment, then that is one less reason for the employer to take it seriously,” Emily Martin, the general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told me.

Sexual harassment happens just as frequently—if not more frequently—in industries dominated by low-wage workers, according to analysis of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Half of women working in the restaurant industry experienced “scary” or “unwanted” sexual behavior, according to a 2014 report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a nonprofit that advocates for workers in the food-services industry. Around 40 percent of women in the fast-food industry have experienced unwanted sexual behaviors on the job, according to a 2016 study by Hart Research Associates, and 42 percent of those women felt that they needed to accept it because they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs. Harassment is frequent in these industries because of the wage and power differences between the women and the men who supervise them, according to ‎Sarah Fleisch Fink, the senior counsel for the National Partnership for Women & Families, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. “An imbalance of power in people in two different positions is a big part of sexual harassment occurring, and I think that there’s probably nowhere that occurs more than in lower-wage jobs,” she said. According to the Center for American Progress, the most sexual-harassment charges filed by workers from any one industry between 2005 and 2015 were in one sector: accommodation and food services.

Men in these industries tend not to be held accountable because the housekeepers and food servers they harass fear being retaliated against and losing their much-needed paychecks if they bring complaints. Some women are worried that they’ll be reported to immigration authorities if they complain. Alleging sexual harassment “is scary for anybody, but it’s especially threatening if you don’t have a financial cushion and your paycheck is the only thing standing between your family and homelessness,” Martin said. Roughly three out of four women who experience sexual harassment never talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct, according to a report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). And a report from the Center for American Progress suggests that nearly three-quarters of sexual-harassment victims say they’re retaliated against once they file a complaint.

Proving that harassment occurred can also be challenging when it is an employee’s word against a supervisor’s. In order to show the EEOC that an employer has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, women have to prove that the harassment was “severe and pervasive,” Martin says, which can be difficult unless women know to keep a diary or notes of what is happening. What’s more, Martin says, low-wage and poor women are often not believed when they report instances of sexual harassment. “Our willingness to believe victims of harassment and violence is not extended to all victims equally,” she said. “If you’re poor, you may be found less credible when you tell your story.”

Indeed, Sandra Pezqueda was initially hesitant to report what was happening to her to the staffing agency, Excellent Maintenance Service, which employed her at Terrenea. Soon after she started working at Terrenea, she says, a supervisor at the staffing agency would tell her that her uniform looked good on her, and that she was the prettiest girl working at the resort, according to a complaint she filed in California Superior Court last year. In her third week of employment, he offered to walk with her so she could move her car, and told her he was going through a divorce and that he would soon be single, she says. When she said she was worried about not getting back to work quickly enough because he was talking to her, she says, he told her that he was the supervisor, so it didn’t matter. It was around that time that he started asking her out on dates, telling her that he would give her more work if she went out with him, and at one point, calling her at her house after she’d gone home for the day and telling her to come have coffee with him. He also told her that she was “special” and would be given 40 hours of work a week, but that the extra hours would be taken away if she did not respond to his texts. “He was the main supervisor, so everyone did what he said,” she told me.

In September 2015, he sent Pezqueda to an area of the resort where there were no cameras, followed her there, blocked the doorway, and tried to kiss her, she said. This happened twice, she said. By the end of September, he told her that he wanted Pezqueda to be her lover, she says, and when she said no, he took her off the schedule for two weeks. She complained to another supervisor in October, and was told there was nothing to be done, since it was her word against his, she says. Soon after, supervisors began “nitpicking” her work, she says, in order to create a reason to fire her, she believes. She was fired in February 2016.

In a statement provided to The Atlantic, Terrenea Resort said that both Pezqueda and the supervisor were employed by an outside staffing agency. Terrenea itself has “a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination and harassment and are committed to ensuring all guests, and associates, are treated with dignity, fairness and respect. Our hearts go out to all of the individuals who have bravely shared their stories,” the statement said. Frank Marchetti, an attorney representing Excellent Maintenance Service, said that the company has no comment at this time.

In some industries, such as domestic work, employees have a number of different bosses, and don’t have anywhere to report abuse. I spoke with another woman, Isabel Escobar, who used to clean houses for clients. One afternoon, when she was alone in the house with the homeowners’ son, he called her to come upstairs, where she found he was standing in the doorway naked. She was going to have to pass him to clean the upstairs bathroom. Terrified that he was going to rape her, she ran out of the house. He called her and told her to come back, but she refused. She didn’t report him, and never got paid for the job. “I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone—I was scared, isolated, and alone,” she told me. “This happens not just to famous or well-known people,” she said.

Escobar was working as an independent contractor at the time, which highlights another reason it can be hard for low-wage women to feel that they’ve been heard. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and can be a tool for women who experience sexual harassment at work, does not cover women who are independent contractors. Filing a Title VII complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the first step in bringing a sexual-harassment case under federal law, but for many women, it’s off the table. Though filing such a charge does not require a lawyer, many women find that having legal advice is helpful in figuring out their options—but women who work low-wage jobs can rarely afford lawyers, and finding a pro-bono lawyer can be challenging: Many lawyers work on contingency basis, getting paid if their client wins, but because low-wage workers make so little money, the potential judgment, even if they win, may not be enough to make it worth lawyers’ time.

There are ways that businesses could do more to fight sexual harassment among low-wage workers, Martin says. Tipped workers are often subject to a higher level of sexual harassment because they have to put up with poor conditions in order to earn tips—raising the tipped minimum wage might be effective at empowering them to push back against harassment. A 2013 Supreme Court case, Vance v. Ball State, made it more difficult for low-level supervisors to be held accountable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because the victim has to prove that supervisors who have hiring and firing responsibilities, not just supervisors who direct day-to-day activities of employees, knew about the harassment. Reversing that decision could also help women in low-wage industries, Martin said. But most of all, giving workers more job security and higher wages might change the conditions that prevent them from speaking out and filing charges. If women feel that complaining about even the most egregious situations can get them fired, and they don’t have savings or a safety net, they’re unlikely to complain.

Sandra Pezqueda went through a dark period after she lost her job. She went into a deep depression, frustrated that speaking out had gotten her fired. Other women at the staffing agency stayed quiet about harassment because they were afraid of losing their jobs, she said. She spoke out because she didn’t like to imagine her daughters going through a similar situation. But speaking out cost her, as it does many women in her position.