After The New York Times dropped its bombshell investigation into decades of sexual harassment perpetrated by film producer Harvey Weinstein, and The New Yorker followed up with allegations of not just harassment but sexual assault, dozens of women in Hollywood have come forward with stories about his harassment and abuse. But until these articles were published, Weinstein faced few repercussions for his behavior.
There are a number of reasons most of these women may have decided against reporting what happened to them. Many actresses talked about their fear that Weinstein would exact retribution by blacklisting them in the industry—something some victims said they experienced simply for rebuffing his advances. They likely worried that no one would believe them or take them seriously. One of the few women who did report his behavior to the authorities, Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, even wore a wiretap and caught Weinstein apparently admitting to assaulting her, only to watch Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. drop her case over what he said was lack of evidence supporting a criminal charge.
But there’s another reason actresses harassed by Weinstein may have been discouraged from reporting sexual harassment. Any who were working on a Weinstein film were almost certainly classified as independent contractors, not regular employees. And that means that the anti-discrimination and sexual-harassment protections of federal law didn’t apply to them.
It’s a problem not just in Hollywood but throughout the economy, in industries as diverse as real estate, trucking, technology, and home health care. And the problem is growing. As more companies classify their workers as independent contractors or push workers into nontraditional employment arrangements, an increasing number of people are at risk of having virtually no recourse for on-the-job harassment.
Workplace discrimination and harassment based on sex are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws “employment practice[s] [that] discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” If an employee feels she is being harassed at work, she can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the first step in taking legal action. But the catch is that she has to be an employee for Title VII protections to apply. Independent contractors, temp workers, and those employed by contracting companies are not covered under the law. “Title VII has to be related to employment,” explained Catherine Ruckelshaus, program director at the National Employment Law Project. Anyone who’s not a traditional employee can’t easily bring claims under it. “The more attenuated you get from an employment relationship, the harder it is under Title VII.”