(l-r) Chelsea Edwards and Liz Chacko of Justice at Work.

The entertainment industry has succeeded in drawing attention to the ways that sexual assault and harassment can become pervasive when employees have limited options for reporting abuse and employers have the power to blacklist. We at Justice at Work (formerly Friends of Farmworkers) see these same factors leading to abuses against the far less visible but incredibly vulnerable women who make up Pennsylvania’s low-wage workforce. For our clients—who work in industries like agriculture, meatpacking, housekeeping and restaurants—saying #MeToo and speaking out against unfair treatment in the workplace can wind up being more costly than simply keeping quiet and enduring whatever abuse they may be facing. Furthermore, many of these individuals face additional barriers to reporting because of their immigration status or limited English proficiency. These differences create asymmetrical power dynamics that cause this population to remain invisible, all while the staggering rates of abuse continue to grow.

A 2016 study by the EEOC’s Select Taskforce on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace found that 25 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment at work (“Report of Co-Chairs Chai R. Feldblum & Victoria A. Lipnic”). This number spikes to 80 percent for female farmworkers, however, as Irma Morales Waugh documented in her 2010 survey of 150 farmworker women in California’s Central Valley (“Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women”) and further documented by Human Rights Watch in 2012 (“Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment”).

Issues of wage theft, sexual assault and harassment, and human trafficking present differently among low-wage workers, and often co-present among our clients. These clients benefit from legal services that understand the various challenges they face. For example, individuals seeking assistance with a workers’ compensation issue might actually have sexual harassment, wage theft, or trafficking claims against their employers as well. For this reason, we take a holistic approach to client intake. A comprehensive intake process allows us to spot a variety of potential legal claims, identify the underlying social and economic factors that make these workers particularly vulnerable to workplace exploitation, and attempt to address some of those factors, either in-house, or through referrals to other service providers.

Suppose a client comes into your office and wants to know if she’s eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits after burning her arm while working as a line cook. However, she may not think it relevant to disclose that she is working 70 hours per week, not receiving overtime pay, living in an apartment she rents from her employer, being sexually assaulted by her supervisor, and continuing in that job because she owes money to the employer. Perhaps she has attempted to report this abuse but the only interpreter provided for her to do so is the supervisor. These are all areas where, by digging a little deeper, a good legal advocate can understand and advise this client on her full range of legal rights and remedies.

Among our clients, sexual assault and harassment are often accompanied by wage theft and other exploitative employment practices. For example, managers use quid pro quo tactics like offering an employee a raise in exchange for going out on a date or threatening to report her to immigration officials for not complying with a request for sexual favors. Or as in the case above, a client not receiving the overtime pay to which she is entitled may, over time, become so financially insecure that she is compelled to tolerate harassment in order to keep the job and support her family. Sexual harassment and wage theft are often used in combination to control low-wage employees.

Likewise, sex-based discrimination often overlaps with national origin discrimination. Immigration status, language, and prejudices against workers of other national origins are all factors that create the conditions for sexual harassment and prevent employees from reporting. For example, employers might use pejorative language to refer to their foreign-born employees, might prohibit them from taking breaks, or might pay them lower wages than their U.S.-born peers who perform the same tasks. These injustices are often tolerated out of ignorance and fear: not all employees know their rights, and some may worry about being detained or deported if they speak out.

Sometimes such abuse may even rise to the level of labor trafficking where participation in sexual activities is a condition of continued employment or is used as a means of coercing an employee to work. Pennsylvania’s Act 105 provides that an individual may be subjected to involuntary servitude through threats of bodily injury, threats to abuse the legal process, and debt coercion, among other means, 18 Pa. C. S. Section 3012(b). But clients reporting sexual harassment may not disclose that they felt compelled to keep coming back to work under abusive conditions because they were in debt to their employer, for example. Providing a thorough intake interview is essential to determining whether these clients may have additional civil remedies available to them.

In addition to representing clients on legal matters, we at Justice at Work help our clients combat unfair treatment in the workplace by educating them through outreach and training programs. Our client-centered approach and trauma-informed techniques enable us to design programs that empower communities to stand up for themselves. We encourage you to do the same and to reach out to us for technical assistance.

Liz Chacko is the deputy director of Justice at Work and Chelsea Edwards is an Independence Foundation Public Interest Legal Fellow at Justice at Work, whose project focuses on providing legal services to women subjected to sexual harassment and other abuses in the restaurant industry.