The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sexual assault endured by domestic workers overlooked in national conversation

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s authority to investigate, penalize or sue employers who sexually harass workers only applies to workplaces where there are 15 employees or more. (iStock)

June Barrett, a home health-care aide, had been on the job just a few weeks when her client, a mentally sharp but physically fragile elderly man, grabbed her breast in full view of his adult daughter. The moment was terrible. But the two women had developed a rapport. So, for a brief moment, Barrett felt almost relieved.

“She laughed. His daughter absolutely saw what happened and laughed,” said Barrett, 54. “She did not say, ‘Dad stop that right now!’ She didn’t say, ‘June, I’m sorry.’ It was such a betrayal because I thought that if anyone it would be okay to talk to her about what was happening, to find a resolution. But in that moment, I realized that wasn’t going to happen, no way that my word would be enough.”

As the nation faces the frequency of sexual harassment and assault at work, both experts who study the problem and the agency that enforces laws against it say that it’s women at the bottom of the labor market who suffer sexual harassment most often and are least likely to see anything like justice. Their experiences also suggest that the lines between predators and complicit cover artists don’t fall neatly along gender lines — often, the stories include women who overlooked sexual assaults or even facilitated harassment of female workers with less power to fight it. That’s a pattern that makes pronouncements about the Harvey Weinstein effect — the idea American men have been shaken, even chastened and the workplace forever changed — seem optimistic, at best.

“I think there is a new awareness, but . . . you have to wonder if the awareness and concern has really grown or been approximated because of the Hollywood element,” said Anita Hill, a lawyer and professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University.

#MeToo was started for black and brown women and girls. They’re still being ignored.

Hill is best known as the woman who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 about what she said was a pattern of sexual harassment inflicted on her by then-nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas. She heard herself described alternatively as a cunning political operative, a liar and an insane or bitter woman — but also as a hero forcing a national reckoning. Thomas denied the allegations. The committee confirmed him after refusing to hear testimony from another woman.

In the years following Hill’s testimony, reports of sexual harassment to the nation’s workplace discrimination watchdog agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), spiked and remained elevated for years before a slight decline.

“By the time I joined the commission, I know there were several of us who could not believe how much of this we continue to see,” said Victoria Lipnic, an employment lawyer and acting chair of the EEOC. Not long after she joined the commission in 2010, she asked attorneys in the EEOC’s 15 regional offices about the extent of the problem.

“They all said pretty much the same thing: If we wanted to, we could have a docket [case list] of nothing but sexual harassment, every day, all day, all year,” Lipnic said.

In 2015, the agency commissioned a larger study. Among the revelations: Sexual harassment, much like racial and religious harassment, seems most prevalent in workplaces where employees are mostly homogeneous and those where employees are very diverse but segregated across job types. The EEOC’s problem list also includes workplaces with a star employee who is above the rules, job sites with large numbers of young or immigrant workers or monotonous duties, those where customer service and client recommendations matter a great deal, jobs in physically isolated places and those where alcohol use is encouraged or allowed. The agency used the findings to overhaul the training it will bring to workplaces upon request.

But the EEOC’s authority to investigate, penalize or sue employers who sexually harass workers only applies to workplaces where there are 15 employees or more. Since most nannies, housekeepers and home health-care aides are the only employee in their workplace or one of just a few, they are often outside of the EEOC’s dominion.

“Domestic workers are almost expected to endure some degree of indignity as a term of their employment. That’s no accident,” said Allison Julien, a fellow with the National Domestic Worker Alliance’s We Dream in Black initiative, which advocates for black domestic workers. 

Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?

In the 1930s, as Congress passed some of the nation’s core labor laws — including the 40 hour workweek and the minimum wage — lawmakers intentionally excluded occupations in which most of the nation’s black, Latino and Asian workers were employed such as domestic work and farm labor. Congress has adjusted these laws over the intervening decades. A Department of Labor regulation, known as the Home Care Rule, extended the minimum wage law and overtime guarantee for home care workers. It went into effect in 2015, but years of legal wrangling left the matter unsettled until 2016. Many farm laborers remain excluded.

Beginning in 2010, eight states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Nevada and Oregon — passed laws the alliance dubbed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. Some of these state laws mirror existing state anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws, giving domestic workers a process for filing sexual harassment and access to unemployment benefits. They guarantee a minimum wage and time off after a certain number of days worked. But in Nevada the harassment provisions apply to workplaces with 15 employees or more. In the remaining 42 states, some of these protections are absent for domestic workers.

When Barrett, a Jamaica-born immigrant, came to work for the nearly blind man as a live-in aide, she had already had a client who referred to her with a German or Yiddish term meaning “black servant” — or, by some translations, the n-word — and another white family that insisted she sleep on a couch, instead of an unoccupied extra bedroom. She’d worked for a black family that stopped paying after her first week. But the white and nearly blind Miami man had a habit of trying to put his hands between her legs, lick her neck or kiss her on the mouth. Her first night on the job she barricaded her bedroom door.

“It sounds completely crazy to me now,” said Barrett, who today works as a home health-care aide for a different family and an unpaid organizer with the Miami Worker’s Center. “But things go so bad for me at that job that I can distinctly remember thinking, if I am penetrated, I will leave straight away and go to the police. That was the line.”

Barrett was uninsured, paying for her asthma and diabetes medication out of pocket and could not miss a paycheck. Job agencies typically refuse to connect workers who complain or leave jobs quickly with more work. Searching independently can also be a problem. References and recommendations are everything.

“Women at or near the bottom, in terms of pay, in terms of standing are among those most frequently harassed,” said Mindy Bergman, a professor in the department of psychology and brain sciences at Texas A&M College Station who studies how work affects individuals. She was one of the experts the EEOC tapped.

“Perpetrators seem to know,” Bergman said. “They have a better chance of getting away with what they do because these women are less likely to be believed if they report, and are also less likely to report because the job is so critical and the stakes so high. For some women, that’s a phase in their career. For other women, that’s their life. ”

Domestic workers meet in D.C. to discuss on-the-job conditions

Today black, Latina and Asian women comprise 40 percent or more of the nation’s nannies, maids and home health-care aides.

Since Barrett told her story at the first domestic worker’s convention last year, she and other organizers have heard chilling stories. A nanny raped by her charge’s father then fired by the child’s mother when the nanny asked the woman for help. A home health-care aide who had to endure slaps on the bottom and cleavage touching to collect her paycheck. A maid who works for a man whose robe is somehow always open when they are alone but closed if the man’s wife is in the room.

“The question, really, is how far are we willing to extend the courtesy of being able to protect our own bodies and demand that our bodies be respected, that we not be harassed in the workplace?” Hill said. “If we don’t care as much about the maid and the Mechelle Vinsons of the world, then we can’t get monumental change.”

Vinson is a former Washington bank clerk who filed the suit which established the legal concept of the “hostile work environment” and prompted the Supreme Court to declare this a form of discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Vinson is also one of several black women who brought litigation central to almost every sexual harassment case which reaches a courtroom today, said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University and a legal historian.

Back in 2011, the Association of Black Women Historians offered an assessment of “The Help,” a Hollywood feature film about a plucky white heroine exposing the workplace indignities experienced by black domestics in Mississippi, circa 1962. The movie evaded any mention of the frequent sexual harassment and assault the nation’s then mostly black maids experienced on the job.

That’s a dynamic much like the current national reckoning, Barrett said.

“Almost nothing has changed. We are just ‘the help.’ We are still ‘the girl.’ We are not human,” said Barrett, who managed to find a new job after several months. “We do not matter.”