New data on #MeToo's first year shows 'undeniable' impact

Sexual harassment complaints are up across the U.S. with the feds and with HR departments.
by Nigel Chiwaya /
Image: Protestors Demonstrate Against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh In New York
Protesters march through Midtown Manhattan as they rally against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Oct. 1, 2018 in New York.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

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The #MeToo movement exposed a laundry list of accusations against men in powerful positions in media, Hollywood, tech and more. But behind the headlines, hundreds of women and men — in industries ranging from retail to medicine — have filed harassment complaints, called hotlines and come forward with their own #MeToo stories in the year since the movement began.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates complaints of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, saw about 7,500 harassment complaints filed from October 2017 to September 2018, a 12 percent increase compared to the previous year, the agency reported last week.

Harassment complaints rose despite overall complaints dropping, said Victoria Lipnic, acting chair of the EEOC. And visits to the EEOC’s sexual harassment webpage more than doubled in October 2017, after the abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein broke and #MeToo became a national conversation.

"The impact of the #MeToo movement is undeniable," she said.

That impact has extended to some corporate human resources departments, which have anecdotally reported a rise in harassment complaints that are resolved internally without going to the EEOC. And still more women are seeking help anonymously by calling hotlines for sexual assault victims, where call volume spikes whenever high-profile assaults make headlines.

The legal fight against harassment got a boost from Time’s Up, an organization dedicated to safe and equal workplaces for women, and the National Women’s Law Center. The two groups launched a legal defense fund in January to provide low-income women with attorney consultations and help with legal fees. The fund has raised $22 million in donations and assisted 3,500 women and men from all 50 states, said Emily Martin, a vice president of the National Women’s Law Center.

"It’s an incredible outpouring from people who have been inspired to share their stories and demand justice," Martin said.

Those demands drove the 41 harassment lawsuits the EEOC filed over the past year, a 50 percent increase from the previous year. The agency targeted companies as large as United Airlines and as small as a Dollar General in Maryland, to resolve cases in which companies would not admit wrongdoing.

Lawyers who handle sexual harassment cases see a clear link between the increase in lawsuits and the public focus on the issue.

"The type of case isn't new. It’s the volume of cases that is new,” said Gerald Maatman, a partner at the employment and labor law firm Seyfarth Shaw, who has tracked EEOC litigation for more than 20 years.

The EEOC’s United Airlines case involved a captain accused of posting explicit photos of a flight attendant online. At the Dollar General, an assistant store manager said she was transferred to another location after complaining about lewd comments and aggressive advances from her manager, an alleged violation of anti-retaliation laws.

A Dollar General spokeswoman said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart said the company disagreed with the EEOC’s description on the incident. “United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace and will vigorously defend against this case,” Hobart said.

One of those whose harassment complaint was boosted by #MeToo was Gina Pitre, 57, who worked at a Walmart in D’Iberville Mississippi. She accused a manager of harassing her for more than a year and a half, repeatedly groping her and demanding lewd images. The manager refused her request for a transfer. Another manager and Pitre reported the misbehavior to Walmart’s ethics department, she said.

The other manager subsequently accepted a buyout from Walmart and left the company, Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said.

“I followed the guidelines,” Pitre said. “I reported it to a manager. I made a report. I talked to a higher-up. I did what I was supposed to do. But they didn't protect me.“

Pitre filed a complaint with the EEOC in September 2017. She resigned from Walmart in April 2018, the same month she sued Walmart for sexual harassment and retaliation and her manager for emotional distress.

Pitre called Time’s Up five times after seeing a news story on television. She received a response after the last call, and the group connected her with an attorney and paid for her filing fees.

“I'm not going to give up on this case. I'm going to fight it if I have to go all the way to Washington,” Pitre said. “I want the public and women to know it's not right for a man to grab you if you do not want it.”

Walmart spokesman Hargrove said the company does not tolerate discrimination or harassment and investigates all allegations.

“In this particular case, we conducted a comprehensive investigation, including witness interviews, and could not substantiate a violation of our Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy,” Hargrove said in an emailed statement. “We take this matter seriously and are defending the company against these allegations.

It’s not just the EEOC fielding more complaints. Lipnic said the human resource professionals she’s talked with this year tell her more employees are coming forward with claims, which are handled internally.

Maatman, whose law firm defends clients against EEOC litigation, said that he’s advised businesses to step up their efforts to create harassment reporting systems and address complaints in-house because of the EEOC’s increase in activity on the issue.

“The stakes are that much higher,” Maatman said.

Victim resource hotlines — including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s National Sexual Assault hotline and The Center For Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling And Education’s crisis line — have also seen a surge in activity, particularly when the news is dominated by stories of sexual assault.

In October 2017, Safe Horizon, a victim-assistance nonprofit that operates domestic violence, rape and sexual assault hotlines, saw a 52 percent increase in call volume compared to a year earlier.

"Any time there’s a viral moment we get increases of some kind,” said Brian Pacheco, Safe Horizon spokesman.

Pacheco added that call volume spiked 500 percent on Sept. 28 — the day after Christine Blasey Ford testified before a Senate committee on her allegation that Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her, which he denied — compared to a year earlier.

"People’s memories come back," Pacheco said. "They may have tucked these memories away. They see this and it triggers something."

CORRECTION (Oct. 11, 2018, 5:56 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified Emily Martin. She is a vice president at the National Women's Law Center, not the vice president. Also, the article misstated that Gina Pitre's direct supervisor was fired. The person fired was a manager, not her supervisor.

CORRECTION (Oct. 12, 2018, 5:22 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated how a manager left Walmart. The manager took a buyout; the manager was not fired.

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