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Reporting sexual harassment in the gig economy

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Employers, gig or otherwise, can be sued for economic, non-economic, or punitive damages in the millions of dollars. (Courtesy photo)

This week’s question comes from K, who asks:

Q:“I am female and I work at events that are staffed by Instawork, Wonolo and other gig agencies. We get gigs through these companies to work at various events. One of these events was being catered by a very famous gourmet company [name withheld]. The catering companies contact Instawork and Wonolo to send workers to provide bartender and waitstaff. Some of the gig workers provided by these companies are sexually harassing myself and other female workers by pawing into us. They usually walk up behind me and put their hands on the flat of my back, or down lower towards my butt. One grabbed my arm from behind. Some give you a pat on the back right where your bra is fastened. Sometimes, they brush against me in ways that are unwanted and inappropriate. This is happening not only to me, it is also happening to other women. It is sexually suggestive and doesn’t happen to the men.
I have reported this to the catering company. They say it is not their problem and that I need to contact Instawork. I have tried to make an anonymous complaint to Instawork but couldn’t get through without giving my name. I am afraid if I tell them they won’t send me to gigs anymore.
There is no clear reporting mechanism, a lack of sufficient training on harassment and discrimination, and little or no supervision by the companies who send you the jobs or the companies where you work. I have been putting up with this for years, and I am fed up. Can you write in your column what the law is so I can send it to the companies?”

A: Dear K, the emergence of the gig economy has led to an upswing of complaints such as yours. These companies believe that they owe their “gig labor force” none of the protections which cover full-time employees. Sometimes this is the result of ignorance, sometimes it is the result of the gig employers just not giving a damn about their labor force.

Sexual harassment can include verbal statements, comments, jokes, written comments, emails, “dick pics,” touching, inappropriate physical presence (sitting on a desk with crotch inches from the face, blocking freedom of movement, etc.) and other unwanted conduct. The key is that the conduct is unwanted and has its basis in sexual connotation or abuse of power.

Under California Government Code Section 12940(a) conduct arises to the level of sexual harassment “when the harassing conduct sufficiently offends, humiliates, distresses, or intrudes upon its victim, so as to disrupt the victim’s emotional tranquility in the workplace, affect the victim’s ability to perform the job as usual, or otherwise interfere with and undermine the victim’s personal sense of well-being.” It suffices to prove that a reasonable person subjected to the discriminatory conduct would find that the harassment altered working conditions so much as to make it more difficult to do the job.

Section (b) of 12940 states that even a single incident of severe harassing conduct is enough to create a triable issue regarding the existence of a hostile work environment if the harassing conduct has unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. “The existence of a hostile work environment depends upon the totality of the circumstances . . . and the legal standard for sexual harassment should not vary by type of workplace.” 12940(c)&(d).

Pursuant to Section (j)(1), “harassment of an employee, an applicant, an unpaid intern or volunteer, or a person providing services pursuant to a contract by an employer . . . shall be unlawful if the entity, or its agents or supervisors, knows or should have known of this conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”

A person “providing services pursuant to a contract” means a person who meets all of the following criteria: (A) The person has the right to control the performance of the contract for services and discretion as to the manner of performance. (B) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established business. (C) The person has control over the time and place the work is performed, supplies the tools and instruments used in the work, and performs work that requires a particular skill not ordinarily used in the course of the employer’s work.

Employers, gig or otherwise, can be sued for economic, non-economic, or punitive damages in the millions of dollars. It is also illegal to retaliate against anyone making a complaint. Our firm has recovered hundreds of millions in discrimination, harassment and retaliation cases.

Send both the “gig” employer and the catering company a copy of this letter and hopefully they will take appropriate action. Make a paper trial so you can prove it was delivered. If they continue to ignore your rights, contact a good trial lawyer to take action on your behalf.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions and topics for future articles to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Our work is no recovery, no free or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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