Last month, we talked about sexual harassment in the hospitality industry and the unique circumstances that put hospitality workers in greater danger being harassed or sexually assaulted on the job. This time, we will look at another working-class industry in which a high number of workers are subjected to sexual harassment; the retail industry. According to CBS MarketWatch, retail is second only to the hospitality industry for the number of sexual harassment charges that are filed each year.
When some people think of retail, it conjures up images of glamour and fashion, shopping for clothing, trying on dresses and shoes, etc. But that is far from reality for most people who work in the retail industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average full-time retail worker makes less than $33,000 per year, which is well below the U.S. median household income. In addition, 42% of those working in the industry earn a low hourly wage, defined as less than two-thirds of the median wage across the economy. Approximately 55% of low-wage workers in retail are women, and a large percentage of these women live at or near the poverty line.
Lower wage workers are more susceptible to sexual harassment largely because of their economic vulnerability. For one thing, harassers tend to target those who earn a lower income, because they believe victims are less likely to report the incident. With so many retail workers struggling to get by, the last thing they want is anything that may put their job in jeopardy.
Sexual harassment in the retail industry is not usually peer-to-peer; in a large number of cases, the harassers tend to be managers or supervisors. In a typical retail setting, the manager/supervisor has a great deal of control over the employee’s schedule. They decide what shifts the employee is working, how many hours they will be able to work, and ultimately, how much money they will be able to earn.
Oftentimes, workers feel like they need to just put up with the harassment because managers and supervisors have so much control over their financial well-being. They just endure the lewd and crude jokes and comments, and the occasional touching and groping (and sometimes worse!) for the overall betterment of themselves and their families.
In addition to the disproportionate number of low wage workers in retail, there are a couple other major reasons why sexual harassment is rampant in the industry:
By its very nature, the retail industry is decentralized. The stores where most of the employees work tend to be located a significant distance from any corporate office. This means that officials in the corporate office have no regular face-to-face interaction with front-line employees and immediate managers and supervisors. They may visit the stores from time to time, but essentially, the store manager is in charge on a day-to-day basis. This type of absolute authority with no accountability makes it easier for perpetrators get away with workplace harassment.
Unclear Reporting Policies
Another common problem in the retail industry is ambiguity over who to report a sexual harassment claim to and how it is handled once you report it. For larger chain stores, the process may involve calling a designated phone number and reporting harassment to someone in corporate office or HR Department. But what happens to the information from there? How seriously do they take your complaint? What is their investigation process?
As bad as that sounds, it may be even worse in a smaller store where one or two people are in charge, and they are the ones you are supposed to report harassment to. What if one of them is the perpetrator? How can you ever expect to be treated fairly in a situation like that? In many cases, employees decide to live with the harassment rather than initiating a highly uncertain claims process.
Standing up to Workplace Harassment
If you have been sexually harassed as a retail industry worker or as a worker in any other industry, you do not have to quietly put up with it. You have legal rights, and you may be able to recover compensation and obtain other forms of relief for your situation. The best place to start is to speak with an experienced civil rights attorney.
For almost a decade and a half, attorney Kira Fonteneau has stood up for the working people of Alabama. Kira was recently recognized for her work in this area by being appointed president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. She can meet with you to discuss your case and advise you of your legal options.
For a confidential consultation with attorney Fonteneau, call our office today at 205-564-9005. You may also send us a message through our web contact form.