Amid Coronavirus Quarantines, Workplace Sexual Harassment In New York Goes Virtual

As the coronavirus and COVID-19 has ravaged New York City and many other parts of the world, many workplaces have quickly adapted by allowing employees to work from home. The use of videoconferencing software is growing at astonishing rates. According to some sources, downloads of one popular videoconferencing app increased from 56,000 per day to over 2.1 million per day between January and March. Widespread use of remote-working technologies brings other problems, though. Workplace sexual harassment has always had an online, virtual component, as harassers make use of email and text messaging. With vastly more people working remotely, and fewer people physically occupying workplaces, New York sexual harassment attorneys could see more claims arising from virtual spaces.

From a legal standpoint, sexual harassment in two general scenarios constitutes sex discrimination under laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee must accede to some sort of sexual demand as a condition of employment. A hostile work environment occurs when pervasive and unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace renders an employee unable to perform their job duties. This usually involves multiple acts occurring over a span of time, ranging from inappropriate jokes to more overt sexual acts. A single incident could support a hostile work environment claim, however, if it is particularly heinous or severe.

Neither type of sexual harassment has to occur in-person for it to violate antidiscrimination statutes. Online harassment is as old as the internet itself. A supervisor or manager could, for example, commit quid pro quo sexual harassment by refusing to provide favorable work assignments to an employee unless that employee engages in explicit online interactions or sends explicit photos. A workplace that tolerates lewd jokes or other sexual banter does not become any less hostile if it moves entirely to online spaces. An employee who is threatened or discomfited by this behavior in an in-person staff meeting could be just as distressed by the same behavior in a video conference call.

Another common type of online harassment involves sending unsolicited, offensive materials to someone. This could include written materials, images, or videos. The images or videos could be of the person sending them — our society has a word for unsolicited, explicit photos sent by men, which we shall not repeat here — or they could depict other people. The phenomenon of “revenge porn,” in which someone distributes intimate photos or videos of someone without their permission, existed before the internet, but has become far more widespread now that anyone can post pictures and videos online. These can all constitute sexual harassment in a workplace context.

This brings us to the current state of many workplaces in early 2020. It is too early to know how much sexual harassment has moved from physical to virtual workspaces, but we have at least one prominent example of how harassers can misuse videoconferencing technology. “Zoombombing,” named after the popular videoconferencing app Zoom, refers to the use of multi-user conference calls to display inappropriate or offensive materials, chant racial slurs, or engage in other behavior intended to disrupt and disturb. It usually happens in conferences that anyone can join, so it is less likely to affect private work meetings. Something similar is eventually likely to happen in work-related calls, though.

Phillips & Associates’ knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyers represent New York City employees in discrimination and sexual harassment claims under federal, state, and local law. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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