Although sexual harassment can occur to anyone in any industry, low-wage workers are at the greatest risk. Workers in the food service, hotel, retail, home care, and agricultural sectors are often forced to endure exploitative working environments. They typically earn low wages, and many have uncertain immigration status. For these reasons, along with language barriers, they may be afraid to report the abuse.


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“It’s a story people haven’t focused on enough,” says Jocelyn Frye, a women’s economic security researcher at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. “Low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.”

If you are facing discriminatory conditions at work, regardless of your immigration status, an employment attorney understanding of your needs and circumstances can help you.

A quarter of all sexual harassment claims come from low-wage workers

Despite workers in the entertainment, legal, and tech industries dominating headlines with news of their harassment, studies from 2017 and prior have shown that low-wage workers are facing workplace discrimination—and retaliation against reporting—in greater numbers. In a June 2016 report, the EEOC listed “workplaces with significant power disparities” as a risk factor for discrimination. According to the report, low-ranking employees within larger organizations and those subject to direct supervision, like nurses, janitorial staff, and administrators, are more likely to experience harassment for the following reasons:

  • Because of the difference in rank, supervisors may feel “emboldened” in exploiting their employees in a way they would not their similarly ranked colleagues
  • Barriers in language, education, or training may make reporting harassment more difficult for low-ranking employees
  • Low-ranking employees who do not have documentation may fear deportation should they report the abuse

The EEOC also pointed to “gendered power disparities,” reporting that low-ranking employees are generally female.

In 2017, the Center for American Progress analyzed EEOC data to find that a quarter of all sexual harassment complaints filed between 2005 and 2015 came from low-wage female workers. That figure is even higher for restaurant workers. The restaurant worker advocacy organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United put the number of female restaurant workers experiencing sexual harassment at 90 percent in 2014.

“A significant majority of women workers felt they would experience negative consequences, including job termination, if they tried to report sexual harassment from management and customers,” wrote the authors of a 2014 report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center. “As a result of pressure to remain silent about experiencing harassment, many restaurant workers reported deterioration in their emotional well-being, including increased depression and anxiety.”

Barriers to justice

Estimates for workers who experience sexual harassment and do not report it to the EEOC are between 87 and 94 percent. The fear of being reported to immigration authorities and the risk of job loss are common factors cited among low-wage workers who chose not to report harassment. In a 2017 investigation for The Boston Globe, Katie Johnston reported on sexual harassment among low-wage workers in the Boston area and the difficulties they face in reporting these crimes. In one instance, a worker in a bread company had her hours slashed when she refused her supervisor’s advances. In another, a woman’s boss threatened to have her deported if she reported her rape to the police. Per the National Women’s Law Center, roughly one in three women alleged retaliation along with their sexual harassment claims.

Retaliation, like discrimination, is illegal. An attorney or legal aid service can guide you through the process of making your discrimination claim, and protect you against unlawful actions by your employer as a result.

“Read the EEOC website,” says Derek T. Smith, a New York employment attorney and the managing partner of Derek Smith Law Group. “They have a great website with what an employee’s rights are. Most of the time, people say: Oh, I don’t have any proof—such as photographs, writings, recordings. Your own memory, your own recollection of what happened, is proof enough.”

If you are concerned that your memories won’t appear credible on their own, other means of gathering proof may be available to you. Depending on which state you live and work in, you may even be able to collect damaging evidence as the abuse is occurring, says Smith. “Most often, people don’t realize that they can record someone else without the other person’s knowledge. So, record them. That only applies in New Jersey and New York, not Pennsylvania, but New Jersey or New York, you have the right to record.”

Seek legal help

If you’ve been the victim of workplace sexual harassment, don’t suffer in silence. For some, it may be tempting to simply quit the job and escape the hostile work environment. Others lack this option; If you’re a single parent who relies on the income to feed your family, or an immigrant with undocumented status, quitting might appear to carry worse consequences than not.

Unfortunately, both scenarios above—quitting and never looking back, or staying and remaining silent—pose problems. Failing to speak up may weaken any related-legal claims that may arise in the future, while remaining in a discriminatory and unsafe work environment is dangerous.

An employment law attorney with experience in sexual harassment cases can help to ensure that your rights are protected, and that you get the compensation you deserve for any losses or mental anguish you’ve suffered. If you lack the financial resources to hire a private attorney, you can contact a legal aid service or nonprofit in your area to find you affordable representation.