Low-wage workers across multiple industries gathered in Chicago on Tuesday to file sexual harassment charges against their current and former employers. The charges were filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and are the first step toward a potential lawsuit. The workers partnered with the legal resource organization Raise the Floor (RTF), which was founded by a coalition of Chicago-area worker centers and provides support to non-unionized low-wage workers who are facing wage theft, health and safety issues, retaliation, and discrimination.
“I experienced mocking from my co-workers for my sexual orientation,” said Pedro, a former worker at Café L’Appetito in downtown Chicago who is working with RTF. Pedro, who asked to withhold his last name out of fear of retaliation, added he started getting sexually harassed right after he began working there. “The sexual harassment that I experienced was practically every day. I let the manager know, and she let the owners know, but they didn’t do anything to stop it.”
RTF announced the current campaign against sexual violence at a rally in the West Loop on Tuesday. Some 70 workers, activists, and supporters showed up in hats and scarves in the brisk fall weather to shout along as RTF Executive Director Sophia Zaman led chants of, “My body! Our power! Mi cuerpo! Nuestro poder!”
Then, one after another, RTF’s clients stood up to discuss their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace. One client who was afraid to appear in person for fear of retaliation asked for his statement to be read. It detailed how he had been targeted with sexual harassment, innuendo, and intimidation while working at a taqueria. He said he was still afraid to walk past the restaurant for fear he would be attacked. Before this ordeal, he said, he had thought that sexual harassment only affected women or gay people. But, he concluded, “I am a straight man in my 40s; this systemic violence is affecting us all.”
Public discussions of workplace sexual violence have tended to focus on specific industries and specific kinds of individuals. The #MeToo movement, which gained widespread attention in 2017, was centered on raising awareness of sexual harassment and abuse directed toward women in film and media. Both victims and perpetrators in these cases were often household names, and their revelations as a result led to extensive coverage and the firing or demotion of more than 200 powerful figures in media.
However, the #MeToo movement was less successful in drawing attention to the ways in which workplace sexual harassment is endemic in other workplaces—and especially in low-wage ones. More than 70% of women in the food industry say they’ve been harassed by managers, coworkers, or customers. In a 2021 American Association of University Women survey of the manufacturing industry, 68.2% of women of color and 62.6% of white women reported some form of harassment at work. About 80% of female farmworkers have been sexually harassed on the job.
RTF’s clients represent the range of workplace harassment in Chicago. Jesus, a trans man, worked at Dynamic Manufacturing in Hillside, where he said he “experienced harassment, humiliation, and physical harassment.” When he reported it, he said supervisors threatened his job and laughed at him. His wife, Noemi, also worked at the plant and said she was “harassed verbally and physically … all the time” by both co-workers and supervisors.
Flor, who worked at a warehouse of Pivot Bio, an agricultural supply company, said her manager started to sexually harass her about a month after she started on the job. She was then harassed by a co-worker as well, and she said, “it continued on until I was fired for making complaints.”
When harassment begins, low-wage workers have few options. Several workers told Prism that they filed complaints with their supervisors or with HR, but their concerns were brushed off or ignored. Employers may feel that confronting harassment will cut into profits. Or, as RTF staff attorney Mark Birhanu suggested at the rally, employers may “prefer a culture of fear” in which workers are intimidated and feel powerless to make any demands of employers.
Four low-wage workers who spoke to Prism said they didn’t leave their jobs immediately after the harassment began for a range of reasons. Pedro said he needed the money to pay his bills; he also said that the fact that he doesn’t speak English was a major barrier to him getting other employment. Jesus was worried that he would experience the same kind of harassment if he went to another job. That’s a very reasonable fear; one 2011 study from the Center for American Progress found 90% of trans individuals reported harassment or mistreatment on the job.
Flor didn’t feel like she could quit since her husband has cancer and she is the provider for her family. In addition, she said, she was reluctant to leave because of the “injustice” of it.
“Why did I have to leave the job? Why did I have to leave my job for being harassed by someone else?” she asked.
Many of the workers also mentioned that they hoped that by staying and filing complaints, they might be able to improve the workplace not just for themselves, but for others. The desire to make things better for all workers was also a major motivation for their decisions to pursue legal action with RTF. Pedro, for example, says that he “hopes that other workers can learn that there is help for them and that they can get more information so that they don’t suffer the same experience.”
Jesus agreed. “What I really hope is that this stops,” he said.
RTF’s goal with the lawsuit is to raise awareness not just with lawmakers and the public, but with workers themselves. Low-wage workers without union representation often do not know their rights and don’t know that organizations and resources exist to help them.
Jesus and Noemi, for example, say they were looking for someone to talk to about the harassment they were experiencing but were unsure where to turn. They found out about Warehouse Workers for Justice, a worker center affiliated with RTF, when they saw a news report on a protest for workers’ rights outside another company. Rallies and media reports are a vital way to reach workers and inform them that harassment is wrong and unacceptable and that they have tools to fight back.
“I want people to know that even when they are scared, there are ways to get support, there are people who can help them,” Flor said. “I hope my voice echoes because all workers have the right to work in a safe workplace with respect and dignity.”