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Pennsylvania Employment Law Blog

Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

Employees in Pennsylvania who face sexual harassment on the job might wonder what their options are. Some companies might only have one avenue for reporting harassment. This could become a problem if the harasser is a manager or someone involved in HR. Some employees may go to an attorney or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but others may hesitate to do so because they worry about how it will affect their job.

Companies should have a good anti-harassment policy in place with multiple channels for reporting harassment. They should also be dedicated to investigating conduct and reports of harassment even when there is not an official complaint. One study found that fewer than one-third of women who experience harassment officially report it. Companies must also be committed to taking action regardless of the status or performance of the harasser if the complaints turn out to be true. A complacent attitude can be harmful for a company, and just offering training on sexual harassment is often not sufficient.

Reporting harassment at work

Employees are protected by both federal and state laws in Pennsylvania from harassment at work. The first step an employee should take if they are harassed at work is to report the harassment to the human resources department. Many employers have a policy manual or hotline on their company website for reporting harassment.

After a complaint is reported to the human resources department, the department will typically investigate the claims by interviewing the employee as well as any witnesses. The department should keep the employee informed of any findings. The human resources department may give the employer a chance to correct the situation. Information provided by employees might not be kept confidential.

How to take a stand against sexual harassment at work

Victims of sexual harassment in Pennsylvania or other American workplaces may be hesitant to report the harassing behavior. This is in part because they feel like the company may retaliate against them. It may also be difficult for those who witness sexual harassment to speak up about it. For some, talking about the issue is difficult because they aren't sure how to approach it without being offensive.

One way to address the issue is to make it clear to others that the behavior is not appropriate in the workplace. Doing so may be beneficial whether or not the victim is present when jokes or stories are being told. If an employer doesn't have a clear sexual harassment policy, it could be worthwhile to ask for training about the issue. Taking this step may help to uncover gender biases and make the workplace a better one for all employees.

Disability discrimination affects employees, employers

Some Pennsylvania employees who have disabilities may be facing discrimination in the workplace. According to a study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation of white-collar, college-educated, full-time employees, almost one-third of workers have a disability under the expanded federal definition. However, few identify themselves as such to their employers. For almost two-thirds of them, the disability is invisible.

Employees may hesitate to identify themselves as having disabilities because of past experiences with bias or because of fear of bias. Around one-third reported having experienced workplace discrimination, and among those with visible disabilities, the number rose to 44 percent. Examples of the types of discrimination faced included assumptions that people with disabilities would work too slowly or be unable to do certain tasks.

Understanding sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in workplaces in Pennsylvania and around the country is not unusual. According to a 2015 survey, out of 2,235 female respondents, one out of every three reported being a victim of such behavior.

Sexual harassment is one type of sex discrimination and is a behavior that is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1967. The law makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals in the workplace based on their race, color, sex, religion or national origin.

Proving workplace discrimination

Workers in Pennsylvania and around the country are often victims of illegal workplace discrimination. Otherwise qualified individuals may be overlooked for hiring or promotion, denied accommodations for disabilities or be subjected to sexual harassment.

Unfortunately, discrimination can sometimes be difficult to prove. While some employers may say or do things that clearly are discriminatory, many do not. Instead, the effects of illegal hiring practices and creating a hostile work environment may not be immediately obvious. Those who believe that they have been the victims of discrimination may have difficulty proving what happened, as an employer may claim that there is a misunderstanding or blame the applicant or employee for the situation.

Termination close to FMLA leave can be problematic

Pennsylvania employees who lose their jobs during or soon after taking family leave sometimes accuse their employers of retaliation. Negative actions taken toward employees when they request time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act might impose liabilities on employers even if an employee had been receiving poor job evaluations.

The lawsuit of a man who alleged that his employer, a nursing care facility, fired him in retaliation for filing a leave request to care for his elderly father survived an initial review by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Although the court ruled that his additional claim of age discrimination had no merit, the court allowed his retaliation lawsuit to continue.

Appeals court requires lower standard in FMLA case

Pennsylvania employees might have a lower burden of proof in demonstrating that they were fired in retaliation for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In a case involving a woman with poor job reviews, the employer had extensively documented issues with her performance. These issues were put into writing, and the woman was given extra training in an effort to deal with them. When the extra training did not help, she was placed on a 90-day probation.

The woman suffered from anemia and other conditions, and she asked for and was granted FMLA leave while she was on probation. The woman returned after 12 days, and a week later, the company fired her. In her lawsuit, the woman said she was fired for taking FMLA leave. The employer used the reviews, the extra training and the probation period to support its argument that she was fired for performance-related reasons.

Black and Latinos face significant hiring discrimination

A recent analysis of multiple studies across 25 years indicates what some Black and Latino people in Pennsylvania might already know: Job opportunities can be hard to find for minorities. Researchers from multiple universities reviewed 28 studies dating as far back as 1989. Studies about callbacks from job applications consistently produced a bias in favored of white people. Black job applicants heard back from potential employers at a rate 36 percent lower than white applicants. Latinos fared a little better with a callback rate only 24 percent lower than whites.

These figures emerged from data received from 55,842 applications to 26,326 jobs. The researchers accounted for variations in the studies in regards to gender, labor market conditions, job types, study method and education. Although education might enable some people to get better jobs, blacks and Latinos with higher education still faced obstacles to building personal wealth. Minorities tended to need school loans more often than whites, which left them with debts. Blacks with college educations assisted their families with money more often than whites, who remain more likely to receive financial support from their parents.

How to deal with workers in the DACA program

Pennsylvania employers may know about DACA and the protection that it offers to roughly 800,000 younger undocumented immigrants in the United States. However, that program may end if Congress does nothing to extend or otherwise alter the program. Employers who have workers covered by DACA may be tempted to terminate them or otherwise ask about their immigration status. However, this may be seen as illegal discrimination.

If a company is currently employing someone who is protected by DACA, the company must terminate that worker after his or her work permit expires. By some estimates, that could result in 30,000 people in the DACA program losing their jobs each month over the next two years. This is according to the Center for American Progress. Of those who are in the DACA program, about 700,000 of them are currently working.