Sexual harassment complaints being filed at a record pace Thomas allegations fuel jump in reports

July 12, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Eight months after sexual harassment charges against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas burst onto national television, sexual harassment complaints nationwide are soaring toward a record.

Charges filed with the federal government have increased by more than 50 percent since October, when Anita Hill, a college law professor and former employee under Mr. Thomas, aired her allegations before a Senate panel.

While the nomination of Mr. Thomas was approved, in six months' time more than 4,750 people, mostly women, have told the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that they were leered at, assaulted with vulgar language, propositioned, groped worse by their bosses or co-workers -- usually men.

"We have to credit the fact that last fall we went through a national cataclysm" during the Thomas hearings, said R. Gaul Silberman, the commission's vice chairwoman, who also once worked with Mr. Thomas at the agency in Washington. "Has the message filtered down to the consciousness of the average worker? Yes, I think it has."

At this rate, sexual harassment complaints to the federal agency could hit 10,000 by year's end. Last year, there were 6,675 complaints nationally.

The law defines sexual harassment as any unwanted sexual advance that interferes with an employee's work performance, is used to make personnel decisions or is used as a condition of employment. The conduct must be "unwelcome" and "pervasive." It may create a "hostile work environment." Or it may take the ominous form of an implied or stated threat: Play with the boss or pay.

A one-time remark or an invitation to dinner doesn't count.

Also fueling the growth in complaints is the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which lets successful plaintiffs in sexual harassment court cases collect up to $300,000 in damages. The potential for sizable awards is giving rise to a legal specialty.

Typically, the lawyers take home 40 percent of the money -- if they win. They can afford to take only the most outrageous cases.

But the big dollars a few victims win don't mean the complaint process is easy, cheap or always successful.

Most people who file complaints with county agencies collect a few thousand dollars at most, almost always through negotiated settlements.

One route to collecting big damages starts with a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which can investigate employers with 15 employees or more.

But the federal agency is swamped now; investigations are taking an average of nine months, and waits of up to two years have been reported.

After six months of commission inaction, accusers can sue their employers in federal court. But victims either have to come up with a hefty retainer for the lawyer or track down one who will take a case on contingency, hoping to collect later.

Legal specialists predict that lawsuits will multiply as harassment victims expose their harassers, strike back for lost jobs or go after big money.

Large court awards "do have a deterrent effect," Ms. Silberman said. "But this proliferation of litigation is a drain on productivity."

Gradually, she said, employers will adopt anti-harassment policies, train their workers and learn to crack down on any hint of workplace misconduct. But the shakeout probably will take years.

"It isn't going to be pretty, and it isn't going to be fast," she said.

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