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    03.28.18 Sparer Forum Explores Issues of Sexual Harassment and Low-Income Workers
    Liz Schneider Speaks_Sparer Forum

    Amid the uproar about sexual harassment in the workplace and the #MeToo movement, little attention has been paid to women in low-income jobs who often suffer from harassment by supervisors and co-workers and face additional intersectional discrimination based on race, nationality, and age. On March 22, a panel of leading scholars and experts explored the legal and policy issues specific to these workers at the Law School’s annual Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Forum.

    This year’s forum, “Low-Income Workers and Sexual Harassment,” sought to raise awareness of the unique challenges faced by low-income workers and help employers, courts, and legislators re-examine their understanding of sexual harassment.

    Moderated by Elizabeth Schneider, the Rose L. Hoffer Professor of Law and Director of the Sparer Program, the forum featured Professor Minna Kotkin, director of the Law School’s Employment Law Clinic who has written and lectured extensively on issues of employment discrimination, Tanya K. Hernández, the Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law and a leading scholar in intersectional discrimination, Elizabeth S. Saylor, partner at Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, and LaDonna Powell, the plaintiff in a major sexual harassment lawsuit involving the security guard industry.

    “As the “me too” movement developed, focusing on celebrities and Harvey Weinstein, we in the Sparer Program sought to expand the conversation and talk about the special hardships of women in low-wage jobs,” said Schneider.

    Kotkin explained the legal definition of sexual harassment, encouraging the audience to expand their thinking about the issue. “There are many types of harassment in the workplace,” she said. “The press is focused on the sexual variety, but we should think about harassment more broadly. Harassment can be overt: ‘sleep with me and you’ll get a promotion,’ or it could be a hostile work environment.”

    Outlining the legal barriers for low-wage workers to bring a claim, Kotkin cited the difficulty in accessing resources and systems that employers put in place. “There are a lot of hoops you need to go through to bring a complaint – and then there’s also the fear of retaliation,” she said, adding an appeal directly to the law students in the room: “The biggest challenge for low-income workers, however, is the difficulty in getting a lawyer to represent you.”

    Saylor, whose practice focuses on employment law, spoke about the more practical barriers of bringing a claim. “The fear of losing your job and being blacklisted in your industry is very real,” she said. “Women with smaller paychecks can’t afford to lose their income when their kids and families depend on them.” She also cautioned that workers should not count on the human resources department to look out for them. “The HR department is there to protect the company…they look at employment history and performance reviews. They can come up with reasons that make it harder [for a worker] to bring a claim.”

    Powell, who is represented by Saylor, told her powerful story of constant verbal and physical abuse in her former workplace. Overcome by emotion, Powell paused several times to wipe away tears.

    Hernandez spoke about “racialized patterns” of abuse, explaining that women of color, primarily black women, were targeted more often and that immigrant status and language differences increased their vulnerability.  “Women of color—a smaller percentage of the overall workforce—report 50 percent more harassment,” she said. “Further, while very few women want to bring claims, women of color in particular don’t want to bring claims.”

    The panelists also discussed why there is suddenly momentum for change. Kotkin said pressure that has been building is “the result of 25 years of confidentiality agreements.” Saylor, meanwhile, credited the power of the media. “One thing that has led to change is the press. More stories outing offenders and embarrassing companies is prompting change,” she said.

    Named for Brooklyn Law School alumnus and Professor Edward V. Sparer, who was one of the leading poverty lawyers in the country, the Edward V. Sparer Fellowship Program was established in 1986 to honor him and encourage law students and lawyers to carry on his legacy of work for social justice and the greater good.