Editorials

EDITORIAL

Protect low-wage workers from sexual harassment

Jena Benson, 20, says a supervisor at Dunkin’ Donuts harassed her.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Jena Benson, 20, says a supervisor at Dunkin’ Donuts harassed her.

THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN investigation has let loose a torrent of sexual harassment accusations in Hollywood, in the halls of Congress, on Beacon Hill, and in other places of privilege.

But the problem may be even more prevalent among low-wage workers, many of them working late-night shifts with male supervisors or toiling on male-dominated factory floors.

The Globe’s Katie Johnston catalogued the abuse last week: the Boston-area house cleaner who said she was repeatedly raped by her boss, the Charlestown bread company worker who said her hours were cut when she resisted a supervisor’s advances, and the Honduran immigrant whose supervisor beckoned her to his office over the public address system — the sickening signal to perform oral sex on him.

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The barriers to justice for these women are considerable. Many don’t speak English. Some fear being reported to immigration authorities if they complain. And the risk of job loss is particularly acute for the poor.

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But there is plenty the state could — and must — do to get more justice for more of these women.

Victims seeking damages must report, first, to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which investigates cases, facilitates settlements, and oversees public hearings that can result in damages for back wages and emotional distress.

Advocates say MCAD can deliver meaningful relief. But it has a backlog of 500 to 750 cases — sexual harassment and otherwise — and is not as well funded as some of its sister organizations.

Last year, the state appropriated $3 million for the agency. The equivalent agency in Connecticut received more than twice as much money for fewer cases, according to an MCAD analysis. The New York commission was also far better funded than its Massachusetts counterpart.

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“It’s a little shameful,” says Sunila Thomas George, the chairwoman of MCAD, considering that “we are probably one of the best state agencies doing antidiscrimination work in the country.”

Victims seeking justice don’t rely on MCAD alone. After reporting abuse to the state agency, they can go to court. But getting lawyers to take their cases can be a real struggle.

Sexual harassment lawsuits are time consuming, and their outcomes are deeply uncertain. Often, it’s a he said/she said. And the potential payoff for private lawyers is limited — recouping back wages for a woman who earned $11 per hour does not yield a fortune.

That’s why it’s so vital to properly fund nonprofits like Greater Boston Legal Services, which has been serving the poor for decades. Budget cuts have reduced the organization’s staff by one-third since 2010. And because sexual harassment cases are so resource intensive, the group has largely stopped taking them.

Audrey Richardson, senior attorney in Greater Boston Legal Services’ employment law unit, says the organization could put a meaningful sexual harassment program in place with just a $300,000 annual budget — a tiny fraction of the state’s $40 billion in annual spending.

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The state Legislature should move swiftly to find the money. A little more money dedicated to educating low-wage workers about their rights could go a long way, too.

It’s not just about funding, though. The state should also make some policy changes. Extending the statute of limitations for filing a sexual harassment complaint beyond the current 300 days, for instance, could make a real difference for immigrants who don’t have a full understanding of their rights and may need time to file a complaint.

Lawmakers are not the only key actors here. Employers should make sure they have clear sexual harassment policies posted in prominent places. And those policies should spell out what harassment looks like, so everyone is clear it’s not just about unwanted touching.

This is an extraordinary moment, after the Weinstein scandal. There is a chance for real change. But we must ensure that change helps all women.