October 4, 2018 / 8:49 PM / in 2 months

U.S. agency saw sharp rise in sexual harassment complaints after #MeToo

(Reuters) - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said on Thursday that the number of sexual harassment complaints workers filed with the agency over the past year rose for the first time in nearly a decade, attributing the increase to the #MeToo movement.

FILE PHOTO: A vendor sells #MeToo badges a protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California U.S. November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The commission said the number of complaints, known as charges, filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 rose more than 12 percent over the previous year, when it received about 6,700. It said the numbers were preliminary, as the agency typically publishes comprehensive data from its fiscal year by the following February.

EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic said in a statement that the numbers reflected “the heightened demand of the #MeToo movement.”

The #MeToo movement emerged in response to accusations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men in the entertainment industry starting last October. Many lawyers and other experts had predicted that the movement would spur an uptick in harassment claims.

The number of sexual harassment charges lodged with the EEOC had fallen each year since 2010, when nearly 8,000 were filed. Many worker advocates and women’s rights groups, as well as the commission in a 2016 report, said that was likely due to victims not reporting harassment rather than employers effectively addressing it.

In order to sue employers for harassment, workers must first file charges with the EEOC, which enforces federal laws banning workplace discrimination based on sex and other factors. They also can file complaints with state agencies that enforce anti-discrimination laws, so the EEOC’s numbers do not provide a full picture.

The EEOC on Thursday also said it had filed 41 lawsuits including sexual harassment claims against employers over the past year, a 50 percent increase over fiscal year 2017. The commission in most cases gives workers the right to sue on their own, but can file its own lawsuits.

The commission recovered nearly $70 million for victims of sexual harassment in the past year, up more than $20 million from the previous year.

The impact of #MeToo has also been felt in some courts. In July, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia cited the movement in reviving a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former secretary for a Pennsylvania county.

The court said #MeToo has shown that many victims of workplace harassment fear retaliation if they speak out, and said victims should not be blocked from suing their employers because they failed to report misconduct.

Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Dan Grebler

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