Sexual harassment: Is there a problem in Hawaii?

Harvey Weinstein. Bill O’Reilly. Chef John Besh. Leon Wieseltier. Knight Landesman. All famous men from the mainland who have settled harassment charges, and/or have been forced out of their positions due to serious allegations of sexual harassment on the job — finally.

To be clear: Sexual harassment is not about romance; it’s about power. Sexual harassment is not about love; it’s about oppression. Sexual harassment is not about joy; it’s about fear. Fear to come to work, because the verbal harassment will escalate to physical harassment and maybe even rape at the workplace. This is the fear that working women face every day from their harassing boss or their harassing co-worker.

But what about here in Hawaii? Is it a problem for women students, employees? Yes. It has been a problem for all time — for our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, ourselves.

I have represented numerous victims of sexual harassment, since I first started my law practice in 1986 and continue to do so to this day. Apparently, wherever there are men in the workplace, women in Hawaii have endured sexual harassment — the local county offices, different state departments, private corporations, grocery stores, hotels, law firms, the University of Hawaii system.

Amazingly, Hawaii women were not protected against sexual harassment for years, even after the passage of the Hawaii civil rights law in 1963 and the federal law Title VII in 1964. Male employers still felt that they could get away with sexual assault, just because they were the boss.

Consequently, many of our clients in Hawaii would agonize over whether to file a complaint, fearful of being blamed for the harassment, fearful of retaliation, lack of confidence in the internal complaint process. Also, the combination of physical and psychological effects often result in a traumatic experience that becomes repressed, especially given the local culture. Considerable time may thus elapse before she even realizes that she is actually a victim.

Speaking up against harassment

Throughout the late ’80s and ‘90s, we — Jared Jossem, Barbara Petrus, Perry Confalone, John Knorek and myself — gave hundreds of sexual harassment workshops to educate employers and employees on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace and the rights of victims. Yet even after all these workshops, articles and hundreds of Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges and lawsuits, women are still being sexually harassed.

This very week we are representing in court or at the HCRC/EEOC, women who have been sexually harassed at the City & County, a car dealership and a sexual harassment/retaliation case at a vacation resort. It just hasn’t ended.

Yet in Hawaii, women are speaking up — even when they fear losing their jobs or not getting passing grades. Why? Because at some point it is no longer worth it to study or work in a living hell.

Filing a sexual harassment charge doesn’t necessitate a lawyer — but where does one turn?

The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission would be the first choice, because in Hawaii, victims of sexual harassment have greater protection than under the federal law.

Hawaii constitutional provisions — the Equal Rights, Anti-discrimination, and Privacy amendments — provide a constitutional basis for interpreting Hawaii’s anti-discrimination laws in a stronger manner than similar federal laws.

Hawaii protections have deadlines

Under Hawaii law, employers are liable to any “person” against whom they retaliate, not just employees. And there are no Hawaii caps for damages. But beware: Charges must be filed with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission within 180 days. With the EEOC, filing is within 300 days of the last discriminatory act.

Because so many women were not able to come forward to file a charge within the time limits due to trauma endured, we were able to get the law changed — so that one can file directly in court up to two years after the last sexual harassment act.

The good news: In Hawaii, we are a community that believes — fundamentally — that each person is the equal of every other. When we are at our best, we celebrate diversity, embrace our differences, and build on each others’ strengths. It is now more critical than ever for us to remember our core values, draw and act on them, collectively, with a sense of pride, not fear.

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