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In March, I started volunteering for the Raise Up Washington campaign by becoming a signature collector for Initiative 1433, which would help over one million Washingtonians by gradually increasing the minimum wage statewide and providing them with paid sick and safe leave.

Some of you might ask: didn’t we just raise the minimum wage in Washington?

No, not in the entire state. We only raised the minimum wage in Seattle and SeaTac to $15/hour. The rest of our state – from Olympia to Yakima and Bellingham to Vancouver – is still stuck with a dismal $9.47 minimum wage. This is hardly a livable income workers who are struggling to support themselves and their families.

I-1433 raises the minimum wage gradually over the next four years to $13.50 for all Washington workers. It also mandates that workers receive seven paid sick or safe days per calendar year (which equates to one hour of paid sick or safe leave per 40 hours worked).

For people who sometimes get sick or have to take care of sick loved ones (i.e., everyone), paid sick days are a lifesaver. Many of us take our sick days for granted, but 1 million Washington workers receive zero paid sick leave. Imagine being a single parent working a minimum wage job who has an ailing child and cannot afford childcare. This parent must make a ridiculous choice – do they leave the sick kid to fend for themselves in order to make ends meet? Or risk their job and lose vital income to stay home and care for their family?

No one should have to make this choice. And yet, people are forced to do so every day in this state. Because we simply don’t offer a living minimum wage to Washington workers.

Let’s talk about the incredible benefit that low-wage workers would receive with a minimum wage bump. For a family of three, the poverty wage is $9.65/hour. That’s 18 cents more than what we are paying the low wage workers in our state. Yikes! And without a living wage, these workers are sinking further and further away from the American dream (and the middle class).

But this is not only a class issue – it is a race and gender issue as well. Over 40% of Black and Latinx workers earn less than $13.50 an hour, and far more female workers than males earn minimum wage.

What about small business? Cries the voices from the back. Well, that’s a legitimate question with a (somewhat) simple answer. Research has proven that raising the minimum wage has NO discernible impact on employment levels – which means that employers are not forced to fire their workers because of a raised wage. This is the case because of a number of other means by which small employers can compensate for paying high wages – and yes, that often includes a minuscule increase (about 0.4%) in prices. But what you probably don’t know is that these same employers often enjoy the benefits of lower turnover rates and greater worker satisfaction because of a wage bump.

Safe leave is the least discussed component of I-1433, but is vitally important. Safe leave means paid time off for workers who are suffering from domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. They can use this time to move out of an abuser’s house, attend to issues in court, file restraining orders, work with law enforcement, to find a safe house, and much more – without losing work that they desperately need. The fact that we are not already providing these services to Washington state DV and rape victims appalls me.

When I was assaulted by my ex, I had to take time off from work because of physical and emotional trauma, to move out of my abuser’s home, and to go to court. I didn’t receive any pay for this time. It was only by the grace of my deeply generous family that I stayed afloat financially.

For many survivors of DV and rape, I-1433 could mean a real chance of escaping their abuser and/or getting justice. In this way, a vote for paid safe days is a bonafide lifesaver.

I commend the Raise Up Washington campaign, and I urge you to sign I-1433, so that the measure will appear on the ballot this fall. We need at least 250,000 signatures to qualify.

Look for volunteers all over the state collecting signatures, visit the Raise Up Washington headquarters, or get in touch with me directly – I’ll bring you the petition to sign! And come November, make your vote count by voting for working families.

For more, check out this KIRO news story about the campaign featuring yours truly. 😉

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Article originally posted in Everyday Feminism, where I have recently become a contributing writer!Photo via Guetty Images

Before we can think about whether or not we’ve ever experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to become familiar with different definitions of sexual harassment and the fact that it comes in different forms.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination that is in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But what does that mean exactly?

Sexual harassment is intimidation of a sexual nature. It is any type of unwelcome sexual advance, from a crude joke to aggressive sexual bullying (physical, verbal, or both).

The Many Faces of Sexual Harassment

The two most commonly recognized types of sexual harassment are what we call quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment is, essentially, when someone at your job tells you that they will fire you or inflict other negative consequences on you (such as holding back salary increases, promotions, shift, or work assignments) if you will not have sex with them or perform a sexual favor for them. The Latin, of course, translates to: This for that.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment, on the other hand, is the creation of an antagonistic environment, expressed in sexual terms. This might include statements of a sexual nature expressed by coworkers and/or supervisors, comments made about your appearance, staring in a suggestive manner, inappropriate touching, or even the presentation of pornography in the workplace. It’s any form of sexually inappropriate behavior that makes being at work feel uncomfortable.

Studies suggest that anywhere between 40-70% of women and 10-20% of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and reports of sexual harassment are on the rise.

Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ folk also experience very high levels of sexual harassment at their jobs.

How Sexual Harassment Disproportionately Affects Women

While this type of discrimination affects all genders, it is overwhelmingly inflicted upon females and is extremely effective at keeping women out of lucrative jobs.

One prime example is the hospitality industry.

Low-paid, high-stress maid service jobs are often done by females – whereas higher-paid, much less physically-taxing valet service jobs are dominated by men.

Although a woman may wish to transition from a cleaning job to a valet position in hopes of better pay and less back-breaking work, the creation of a hostile environment in which she is harassed and not welcomed will often keep her away.

This is not uncommon: research shows that female hotel workers experience more sexual harassment on average than women employed in other sectors – and that most of the harassment is performed by their own co-workers.

Understandably, most people are not comfortable working where they are not wanted.

Sexual harassment is most common in low-wage jobs, workplaces staffed primarily by young employees (such as restaurants), and vocations where the vast majority of the workforce (or management) is made up of men.

However, sexual harassment and discrimination on Wall Street and in other high-power industries is rampant as well.

In the 1990s, the famous Wall Street retail stock brokerage Smith Barney was sued for egregious sexual harassment and forced to pay a multi-million dollar settlement to a group of female employees.

Branch managers at the brokerage firm were found guilty of demanding that women take off their shirts in exchange for money while at work. One Smith Barney branch even had a “Boom-Boom Room” – a locked room in which brokers partied and played lewd jokes on female employees.

Both the Smith Barney case and the hotel maids’ plight illustrate how sexual harassment is often a way for men to gain power and control over their female coworkers.

By equating a woman’s worth with her looks, treating her as incapable of doing equal work as her male colleagues, or labeling her as a sex object, men show women that they are not welcome in traditionally male-dominated fields – be it valet parking or finance.

Taking Initial Action

Are women who complain about sexual harassment at risk of being shunned, demoted or fired from their jobs?

“Legally, companies are not allowed to take any adverse action against a person complaining of discrimination,” says Michelle Caiola, Senior Staff Attorney and Acting Litigation Director at the women’s legal defense and education fund Legal Momentum.

Adverse action might include transferring the person to a different department or switching them to a less desirable shift.

If employers are caught penalizing an employee who has complained of discrimination/harassment, they can be subject to a retaliation case (in which the employee who addressed the crime sues their employer for striking back).

According to Caiola, companies work hard to avoid retaliation cases because they are often easier for the victim to win in court.

Still, there are no legal boundaries in place preventing coworkers and/or superiors from ostracizing the victim who has placed a complaint.

The emotional toll of such shunning can easily create an unbearable work environment.

Retaliation from coworkers against the complainant can also be very frightening in hazardous jobs such as construction or firefighting – jobs in which the victim may be counting on her colleagues to protect or even save her life in a crisis.

Many people, especially low-income women working to support their families, are not able or willing to risk their safety or the practicality of keeping their jobs to address sexual harassment – so they continue to endure it.

Some Important Things to Know if You’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work

1. What is My Company’s Sexual Harassment Policy?

Sexual harassment policies differ from company to company.

There are no legal guidelines in place for what they must include or what consequences must be enacted for breaking them.

Companies with better policies are transparent when it comes to how they investigate claims of harassment/discrimination; some even have zero tolerance policies.

Legally, there is another incentive for companies to create a sound harassment policy: an employer will be better able to fight a discrimination claim in court if they have adhered to their company’s own sexual harassment policy – although this is not a complete defense in all circumstances.

2. Make Sure You Document, Document, Document

Documentation is key in cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the age of modern technology, where most people have e-mail, smart phones, cameras and social media, documenting harassment is much easier than it was in the non-digital age.

Take a picture, save an email or instant message conversation, record a vocal exchange or even take video evidence.

And most importantly, make sure everything is documented immediately, including dates, locations, people involved and any other relevant details.

3. What If I’m Not a Citizen?

Many undocumented female workers come to the US as dependents of their husbands and work in the “informal economy” – in jobs that are paid under the table like house cleaning or nannying services.

Unfortunately, these women do not have legal status or the ability to safely contact the authorities about work violations or harassment from their employers.

These facts make it very easy for employers to take advantage of undocumented workers due to their fear of deportation should they complain about their employers’ practices/labor conditions.

Under the law, undocumented immigrants should be protected against deportation in cases of combatting workplace harassment – just like they should be protected under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in cases of reporting domestic abuse.

But there are many loopholes in the US immigration policy, and the fear of being deported and thus ripped from their families remains a strong deterrent for undocumented women struggling with workplace abuse and harassment.

4. What Are Some Next Steps I Can Take?

The key is taking action collectively.

Talk to your colleagues and see if they are experiencing the same problems at your workplace. Organize the ones that are into a group – multiple voices are louder than just one.

Go to your Human Resources department to lodge the complaint and make sure to get written documentation of your visit.

If your company is unionized and you are a member, get in touch with the union to make a complaint. In many cases, they will be able to help you take action.

If not, talk to local union leaders about unionizing and see if others at your job are interested in organizing a union at your company.

Also consider visiting your local National Organization for Women (NOW) Chapter to seek aid and resources from professionals working on these issues.

5. What If I’ve Tried Everything and Still Haven’t Gotten Results?

The next step is to take the case to court.

For low-income women, the options here are fewer because lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming. In cases where the victim has a family to support but no access to reliable childcare, pursuing a court case may not be a possibility.

Instead, low-income harassment victims often reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or their state’s equivalent agency (Fair Employment Practices Agencies, or FEPAs) to file a sexual harassment charge against their employer.

The EEOC then decides whether or not to investigate the claim.

6. What Can I Do To Prevent Sexual Harassment at Work?

Attend and pay attention to your company’s sexual harassment trainings. Education about how to recognize sexual discrimination is a vital step in preventing it.

If you aren’t comfortable with someone’s behavior towards you but don’t think it’s a big enough deal to speak out – think again. Harassers often start out small by testing the water with an inappropriate joke – but without reprimand, things can quickly escalate.

Even if you aren’t the subject of the unwanted attention, call out your coworkers if you hear them say inappropriate things or see them harass a colleague. Sometimes it just takes one outside person to make the harasser aware that what they are doing isn’t going unnoticed – and that they need to stop.

As the workforce continues to change and grow over time, and society becomes increasingly supportive of differences in gender, race, sexuality and lifestyle choice, there is hope for reducing workplace sexual harassment.

But as things stand today, the best defense a person has is to educate themselves about their options – and to get a good cell phone camera!

Everyday Feminism and Danica extend a special thanks to Terry O’Neill, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), for her guidance and feedback in the development of this article. NOW is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States and works to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, schools, the justice system and all other sectors of society.

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Photo via the Education and Workforce House Committee website

This week, the House passed the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406), introduced by Representative Martha Roby (R-AL). The measure, passed by a vote of 223-204 along party lines, seeks to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (PL-75-718) to give private companies the ability to offer employees the choice of receiving regular paid time off instead of overtime pay for hours worked over the standard 40 hours per week. Currently, employees in blue-collar jobs get time and a half for overtime hours worked.

Rep. Roby is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, “This is about helping working moms and dads, providing the ability to commit time at home.” She and other Congressional Republicans have led a PR campaign touting the bill as worker- and family-friendly, but workers’ rights advocates and Democrats in Congress hold a different view.

Progressive advocates believe that H.R. 1406 is a “smoke-and-mirrors” measure that provides workers with a pay cut in order to give them paid time off without the guarantee of when or how they can use it. The bill also allows accrual of up to 160 hours of paid time off in a year. At year’s end, workers would be paid in cash for their unused comp time, but employers could defer payment of this sum for up to 13 weeks. Many advocates call this an interest-free loan for the company.

In another twist, there is alarm that the bill could help eliminate of the concept of paid leave time altogether. Political Director for the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America Union Chris Townsend told the Huffington Post that he worries that employers could ask their employees to “earn” their paid time off instead of automatically offering them a package of two weeks of vacation time plus sick days.

This letter from the National Partnership for Women and Families, signed by 163 organizations from across the nation, denounces H.R. 1406 for its false promises. William Samuel, Director of Government Affairs at AFL-CIO (one of the signing organizations), says “The AFL-CIO is vehemently opposed to the so-called Working Families Flexibility Act, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow employer-controlled compensatory time off to be substituted for paid overtime,” as quoted in CQ. “We urge you to vote against this legislation.”

From service groups to union leaders, the progressive community opposes this bill, which would actually encourage employers to request overtime work from employees by making it a cheaper alternative to paid overtime. Neither is H.R. 1406 a good alternative for low-wage workers because it reduces their take-home pay, money which many low-income families rely on to make ends meet.

A Statement of Administration Policy released Monday announced that President Obama’s senior advisers would recommend he veto H.R. 1406 if it came to his desk. There is little chance that will ever come to pass, however. Passage of the bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate looks highly dubious, as Democrats are almost unanimously opposed to the measure and have struck down similar bills twice in the past. Still, Republicans may seek to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate.