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Women seeking employment flexibility or extra income often turn to gig work. Gig work is so popular with women, in fact, that in 2019 they represented more than half of all gig workers. With women experiencing higher levels of unemployment due to the pandemic, those numbers are expected to grow.
The draw for many female gig workers is the flexibility that it offers. As independent contractors, they are free to set their own hours and take on as much or as little work as their schedules allow. This set-up proves attractive to women trying to earn money while balancing obligations such as child care, eldercare, or attending school.
Unfortunately, with such independence sometimes comes a lack of human resources representation. Seen as "temporary" or "easily replaceable," the companies for which they perform services may not put as much emphasis on protecting gig workers from sexual harassment as they would regular employees. No union for gig workers exists to demand improvements, and HR reps often aren't readily available to investigate issues that arise with contract workers.
Further complicating the matter are factors that can make gig work a ripe environment for sexual harassment. Popular gigs such as on-demand driving or cleaning services bring women into frequent contact with strangers in confined or secluded areas.
In office situations, female independent contractors may be subject to unprofessional comments or actions by male staff members who don't monitor their behavior as carefully as they would around permanent colleagues.
As future assignments often depend on a contractor maintaining high ratings, some women let derogatory words or tasteless jokes slide because they fear the impact of speaking up. And without an employee handbook clearly outlining procedures, even figuring out how to report blatant offenders can prove challenging.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers sexual harassment a form of employment discrimination. The organization notes that "Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance."
Such behavior violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The problem, however, is that federal protections do not cover people who are not employees. This includes independent contractors. A few states have passed their own legislation to protect gig workers.
According to David Clark, lawyer and partner at The Clark Law Office, California's Fair Employment and Housing Act protects against sexual harassment of all workers including gig workers, volunteers, interns and contractors. Regardless of the number of employees, employers are required to respond, prevent, and have a written policy against sexual harassment. The New York State Human Rights Law also protects non-employees and independent contractors facing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Knowing that it faces potential legal issues certainly can make a company quicker to take sexual harassment complaints seriously. But even in states without definite laws protecting gig workers, don't assume grievances will fall on deaf ears.
In an age where news spreads fast via social media platforms, businesses take care to watch their reputation. Negative company reviews on sites like Glassdoor or social media can damage a brand, which could cause companies to lose customers and prospective employees. The latter can prove especially harsh for organizations whose operation relies solely or heavily on securing gig workers.
Until proven otherwise, assume your complaint will be taken seriously. Many companies do want to create a positive environment free from sexual harassment and other negative behaviors. They treat complaints seriously because it's the right thing to do, regardless of the worker's status.
Whether she's classified as an employee or independent contractor, sexual harassment should never be part of a woman's work experience. Speaking up may not be easy, but it may stop the unwanted behavior, provide some justice, and protect other women from going through the same situation. Here's how to go about it:
1. Document your experience
Write down the facts rather than leave details to memory. What happened? Where? What date(s)? Who was the offender? Were others around? What did you do in response? If you received crude pictures, offensive texts, or the like, be certain to save them.
"It is always advisable to keep an accurate and complete record of any inappropriate incidents for the workplace, either through personal notes or through formal complaint processes. If you have adequate documentation, it will be easier to present evidence of a claim in hopes of bringing it to the attention of the appropriate persons and ensure that a discussion is entered to resolve the issue," says attorney Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, founder and managing partner of the Cronin Law Firm.
2. Alert the HR department
Bring your concerns to light. When issuing a contract, some employers include written policies on how gig workers can report misconduct. If given such a document, follow its guidelines on how to lodge a complaint. In the absence of such, consult the HR department or a supervisor. Many popular gig platforms also include "safety information" or a "help button" on their website or app that provides workers and customers a direct way to bring up a problem.
"Any victim of workplace harassment must attempt to mitigate their own circumstance by reporting the misconduct pursuant to the employer's policies and procedures. Should they fail to do so, it will significantly diminish their claim for harassment. Every employer has the right to cure the problem," Cronin says.
3. Be persistent
Feel like nobody is listening or taking the harassment seriously? Don't give up. Keep a record of every person you contact about the issue, by what means, and the response (or lack of one).
"If a gig worker feels as though their complaints are not being adequately addressed, or if the conduct continues following a formal complaint, it is appropriate to file an additional complaint and follow up on any action that has been taken. A gig worker may also report the conduct to another person, perhaps a different supervisor or head of the department, if they feel the first person with whom they spoke did not help them," Cronin says.
4. Seek legal assistance
Getting nowhere? Consider consulting an attorney regarding the harassment to discuss options. Advocacy groups such as RAINN also can offer guidance.
Note: In instances involving physical contact, violence or threats, always make safety the first priority. Call 911 immediately or get law enforcement involved as soon as possible.