‘Weinstein Effect’ Leads to Jump in Sexual Harassment Complaints

Gene Maddaus

Complaints of sexual harassment in California nearly doubled in the first three months of 2018, while New York state has seen a 60% increase since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last fall.

The data are the first clear indication of a “Weinstein effect” on sexual harassment claims. Following the revelations in October, harassment victims have come forward to expose powerful men in media, politics, and other high-profile walks of life. But it has remained a trickier question whether the #MeToo movement would have an effect on workplaces in general, in the same way that the Anita Hill allegations did more than 25 years ago.

At the federal level, harassment complaints have been declining for more than a decade, so an increase would be a sharp break from the trend. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission releases its claims data annually, and has not yet reported statistics on the period following the Weinstein scandal.

The first indications from the state level suggest a significant effect. From January through March, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing received 939 complaints of sexual harassment. That’s an increase of 86% from the same period in 2017, when the department received 504 complaints. Kevin Kish, the director of the department, said it was difficult to tell the precise reasons for the spike, but that it was notable.

“You have to assume there has been some kind of effect,” Kish said. “We’ll continue to track it to see if the spike continues over time or whether it was more of a time-limited phenomenon.”

In New York, the state Division of Human Rights received 353 complaints from Oct. 1, 2017, through April 30. That’s an increase from 220 complaints for the same period a year earlier.

“I think it’s people being more aware of the fact our agency exists and they have a place to turn,” said Rachelle Dickerson, a spokeswoman for the agency. “It wasn’t a spike in the first month. It’s been sort of building up.”

Similarly, in California the increase did not happen right away. In the last three months of 2017, complaints actually declined slightly, from 443 in 2016 to 406. The data does not indicate whether the allegations are substantiated. Some complainants ask the department to open an investigation, while others are simply seeking permission to file a discrimination lawsuit. In effect, the figures could be seen as a leading indicator of the volume of sexual harassment litigation.

Anecdotally, attorneys and investigators who do sexual harassment work say they have seen a significant increase in business since last fall. Jill Rosenthal, a workplace investigator in Los Angeles, told Variety that the heightened awareness has caused an increase in complaints, some of which involve conduct that may have occurred years ago.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this busy,” she said. “I think of it as the tail catching up with the dragon. Sexual harassment been around forever, but I have had cases where it seems like it’s people coming forward about stuff that happened a long time ago… So there’s a lot of catch-up.”

In testimony before an EEOC task force on sexual harassment last week, Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic said the agency is often asked whether there has been an increase.

“We are cautious about talking about our statistics until we are able to have a full assessment at the end of our fiscal year,” she said. “And of course, there’s typically some delay in charge filings, since individuals generally have up to 300 days to file a charge. So while our workload has increased on this issue for all of our offices… so far, we have not seen a big increase in charges filed.”

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