Racing the Clock: How extending the deadline for sexual harassment claims changes the game

Delia Coleman

Did you know that after an act of workplace sexual harassment or discrimination, the clock on filing a complaint immediately begins to tick? With or without the victim’s knowledge. The way things are now in California, victims of workplace discrimination or harassment have a “blink and you’ll miss it” deadline of one year to file a pre-litigation complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. (Filing this complaint is a critical prerequisite if the victim eventually decides to sue in civil  court.)

A year may seem like a long enough time to file a complaint at the state level, but it’s really not. Here’s a short list of the biggest barriers victims in California face that the one-year filing deadline fails to account for:

  • Not knowing what counts as unlawful conduct, or an incomplete understanding of the rights that protect people in their workplaces

An EEOC report finds that when asked directly whether they had ever experienced sexual harassment, 25% of women surveyed said they had. But when asked about specific behaviors that fall under the category of sexual harassment — such as explicit or suggestive comments, sexual gestures, or inappropriate touching — the number rose to 60%.

If someone is unaware that they have a right to a workplace that’s free from the type of harassment they experienced, they are unlikely to report the misconduct at all, let alone within a year of when it happened.

  • Lingering mental and physical health consequences, including depression and anxiety

For an individual struggling with the trauma of harassment, both in the direct aftermath of the harassment and in the weeks, months, and years to follow, reporting the incident can be exceedingly difficult and re-traumatizing. Whether they are working through trauma or fear retaliation, if they decide to share their experiences, the one-year period is rarely long enough for victims of sexual harassment to feel ready to come forward. They need more time.

  • Retaliation & other compounded risks for low-paid workers

The barriers to reporting or filing a complaint are even larger for employees in low-paid positions or industries. Not only are these workers more likely to experience sexual harassment, but they are also less likely to have complete knowledge of their rights, and often feel the effects of job loss more acutely if they are retaliated against for reporting. Whether the retaliation is slashed hours, unpredictable schedules that make it harder to arrange childcare, or outright firing, the effects of retaliation are deeply harmful to low-wage workers living paycheck to paycheck.

Let’s change the game for workers who’ve experienced sexual harassment.

Last year, after passing both the Senate and the Assembly with bipartisan support, our bill to extend the filing deadline was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. This year will be different. Once more, we are fighting to support victims of workplace sexual harassment when they are ready to come forward.

In this vein, we’re proud to stand alongside Assemblymembers Reyes, Friedman, and Waldron as they reintroduce this valuable piece of legislation (AB 9).

There is no reason for the sexual harassment deadline to be so much shorter than the others. In fact, the current shorter deadline actively discriminates against victims of harassment and discrimination.

AB 9 will extend the filing deadline for FEHA claims from one year to three years, reducing barriers to reporting for victims of workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault, and discrimination.

And for folks who care about making our government more consistent: AB 9 will also fix the disparity between filing deadlines under Fair Employment & Housing Act (FEHA) and other filing deadlines in California. For example, for personal injury claims, the statute of limitation is two years; three years for fraud; and four years for contract disputes. There is no reason for the sexual harassment deadline to be so much shorter than the others. In fact, the current shorter deadline actively discriminates against victims of harassment and discrimination.

When it comes to fixing imbalances in the law and eliminating roadblocks for victims of harassment and discrimination, AB 9 is critical in the fight against workplace misconduct that disproportionately harms women. ERA and the Stronger California Advocates Network are committed to leveling the playing field so women are no longer held back by arbitrary deadlines that don’t give them adequate time to understand their rights and seek justice.

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