‘ Weinstein effect’ may see spike in sex charges
Law offices’ phones are ‘ ringing off the hook’
WASHINGTON— Phones are ringing off the hooks in law offices throughout the nation’s capital. And lawyers can thank Harvey Weinstein for that.
Inquiries to law firms have been rising since harassment and assault allegations about the Hollywood film executive were first reported in early October, according to three Washington attorneys who specialize in employment law and sexual harassment.
Rising interest in pursuing harassment charges comes after a decade in which the number of allegations had been on steady decline, according to federal figures.
The number of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 was 6,758, 15% lower than in 2010. That small total suggests that cases are vastly under- reported, according to the EEOC, which takes in approximately 90,000 complaints a year for all workforce violations. The number might start to rise. “There’s not a lawyer doing the kind of work we do whose phone is not ringing off the hook,” said Debra Katz of Katz, Marshall & Banks. “Women have gotten to a place where it’s much safer to stand up to it and employers are more concerned about damage to brand.”
Said her law partner Lisa Banks: “There’s the ‘ Weinstein effect’ now. The more women— and some men— are speaking up, regular employees in industries across the board have felt emboldened to come forward.”
The EEOC says it’s too soon to compare the number of complaints filed since early October to previous months. “I don’t think we’re going to know that for another six months,” said Victoria Lipnic, acting chair of the EEOC. Many of the accusers are younger people who “don’t think to themselves, ‘ I’m going to avail myself of this government agency that enforces the law.’ ”
An EEOC in 2016 report found 70% of people who experienced harassment never talked with a supervisor or union representative.
Yet there’s anecdotal evidence of an increasing interest in the topic. The average number of visits to the EEOC sexual harassment website doubled after the Weinstein story broke in early October, up to an average of 2,156 a day by the end of the month. The agency also has received hundreds of inquiries about a new workplace training program that covers harassment.
Over the past month, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of calls to the National Women’s Law Center, which is disseminating information about the legal definition of harassment, said Emily Martin, a NWLC vice president who is connecting callers with attorneys.
The lawyers interviewed by USA TODAY say the roots of backlash are much deeper than the Weinstein story.
The # MeToo campaign that’s encouraging women from all walks of life to share their stories of harassment, abuse and rape on social media had been going on for years before movie stars including Alyssa Milano began using the Twitter hashtag in response to the revelations about Weinstein.
The EEOC also had been emphasizing the issue through a task force formed in 2016. The 2016 presidential campaign also brought new attention to sexual assault with the release of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape of then- candidate Donald Trump talking about grabbing women’s genitals.
Then along came Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who became the latest in a string of high- profile men, including Fox News’s Roger Ailes, to vault workplace harassment to the forefront of national discourse.
“They feel the public is behind them, whereas theymay not have felt that before. They would be blamed or accused of wrongdoing themselves,” said Banks.
“This is really an extraordinary teaching moment for our nation,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “We are in an environment where the people coming forward rather than being attacked or villainized, what we are seeing is that their stories are being accorded gravity.”
Said Linda Correia, an employment partner at Correia & Puth in Washington, “The victim- blaming is over.”