The Slatest

Sexual Harassment Claims Spiked After the Clarence Thomas Hearings. They’re Spiking Again Now.

A McDonald's worker stands in front of a protest sign with tape reading "#MeToo" over her mouth.
In September 2018, McDonald’s workers went on strike to protest sexual harassment at franchises across the country.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Since the #MeToo movement kicked off last fall, the number of sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has spiked. In fiscal year 2018, which closed just days before the first anniversary of the publication of the Harvey Weinstein stories that kicked off a national reckoning with harassment and assault, the EEOC saw a more than 12 percent bump in charges filed with the agency as compared to the previous year.

While this year’s numbers aren’t finalized yet, Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, a senior attorney adviser to the chair of the EEOC, says the proportional increase is unlikely to change as the agency certifies its data. The agency received 6,696 charges of sexual harassment in the 2017 fiscal year, which means there were about 7,500 in 2018—the first increase the EEOC has seen in at least eight years. Sexual harassment charges had been steadily declining since 2010, when 7,944 claims were filed, and the number hasn’t topped 7,300 since 2012.

According to Ventrell-Monsees, sexual harassment charges increase and decrease in response to major national events and dips in the economy. And since charges are frequently filed in response to layoffs and firings that may be undertaken in retaliation for raising complaints of harassment, a bad economy usually means more charges, too.

Early reports, then, suggest that #MeToo appears to be one of those events that prompts a spike in sexual harassment claims. Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings was another. In the first quarter of the 1992 fiscal year, after Hill appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to accuse Thomas of harassing her when they worked together at—as fate would have it—the EEOC, the agency received 1,244 claims of sexual harassment, a 71 percent increase over the same period in the previous year. The spike held for the next three quarters, which saw 50 percent more sexual harassment charges than in 1991. “There has been a growing public awareness of the right to file charges of sexual harassment, and women are coming forward,” an EEOC spokeswoman said at the time.

Back then, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who helped push Brett Kavanaugh through the Judiciary Committee and recently told a group of women protesting sexual assault to “grow up,” applauded women for coming forward with sexual harassment complaints after the Hill/Thomas hearing. “The one good thing to come out of the hearing is that everybody—and I mean everybody—is more aware,” he told the New York Times in July 1992. “Women are fed up to the gills about how they’re treated in this society. A lot of men thought it was cute, but it isn’t. Sensitivity has been heightened like never before. And that is a very healthy thing for our country.”

The increase in sexual harassment complaints that followed the Hill hearing marked the beginning of a steady rise that continued for the next five years. The combined number of charges filed with both the federal EEOC and state and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies climbed from 10,532 in fiscal 1992 to 16,245 in 1997, then began a relatively steady decline to 9,614 charges in 2017. There’s no way to tell whether the post-#MeToo spike in charges filed will be a quick uptick or the beginning of another long-term surge in complaints, but EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum said last week that she believes the intensified national conversation about sexual harassment and assault denotes “a transformative moment” in the country’s history.

In 2016, the EEOC launched a new training in response to a report that showed harassment to be a persistent, pervasive problem in American workplaces. In addition to educating employers on sexual harassment law and compliance, the new curriculum teaches employers how to stop harassment before it creates a toxic work environment. Since the #MeToo movement began last fall, Ventrell-Monsees says, demand for the training has been “off the charts,” with trainers booked three to six months out. With the $15 million bump Congress gave the agency’s budget in March, the EEOC has been able to hire more employees to meet the post-#MeToo demand.

There’s no good way to track whether the increases in charges filed with the EEOC after the Hill hearing or after #MeToo have led to more favorable outcomes for the employees who file them. Often, even when the EEOC finds an employee’s charges have merit, the employee or her lawyer decides to withdraw the complaint in order to settle privately with the employer. But regardless of whether the new claims end up dismissed, settled, or adjudicated in court, Ventrell-Monsees believes they represent a major shift in the way American workplaces—and the people who populate them—respond to inappropriate behavior. “The EEOC has been all over harassment for many years,” she said. “The rest of the nation kind of woke up to it in October of last year.”