Coworking Spaces in New York City and Elsewhere Present Challenges for Sexual Harassment Claims

Saying that the modern workplace is changing is something of a cliché, but new and innovative work environments are a daily reality for many people. New ideas inevitably bring new challenges, particularly in regard to the way employees interact with their employers and their colleagues. “Coworking” is a relatively recent development in many cities, including New York. Employment laws may not be equipped for some of the challenges these spaces can present. In a coworking space, people engaged in different businesses share a workspace. A few recent news reports and lawsuits have alleged sexual harassment in coworking spaces, illustrating some of the challenges this workplace model can present.

In order to assert a claim for New York City sexual harassment or other types of unlawful employment discrimination, a claimant must be able to establish an employment relationship. The law does not provide a specific definition of this relationship, although terms like “employer” and “employee” can have varying definitions, depending on the statute in question. An employer only meets the definition of that term under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, if it has “fifteen or more employees.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b). The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) does not define “employment” or other related terms. None of these statutes offers an easy idea of how they apply to the types of interactions commonly found in coworking spaces.

At this point, it would be helpful to define “coworking.” The fundamental element of coworking is a shared office space that members can use on a daily basis. For small businesses, coworking offers inexpensive office space, often with a receptionist and other amenities. Some coworking businesses allow small businesses to rent dedicated offices, desks, or tables. Individual coworkers might include freelancers and people who work remotely from their employers, who want workspace with reliable wifi service, free coffee, and the company of other people who work in similar fields. Those are some of the benefits. The potential drawbacks include a lack of clear lines of communication and accountability if sexual harassment or other misconduct occurs.

In many cases of sexual harassment in coworking spaces, the issue may be more one of enforcing contractual obligations than anti-discrimination statutes. Members of coworking spaces sign membership agreements or contracts, which hopefully include policies regarding harassment. At a coworking space in Texas earlier this year, an employee of a business that was a member of the space complained of sexual harassment by an employee of another member. The complainant had no employment relationship, direct or indirect, to her alleged harasser, so it fell on the coworking space to intervene.

A lawsuit against a New York City company illustrates another unusual legal angle. The employer operates out of a Manhattan coworking space, where the alleged harasser’s conduct was routinely visible to many other people besides the plaintiff’s fellow employees. This allegedly compounded the plaintiff’s embarrassment but also raised questions of why no one outside the company intervened.

The experienced and skilled sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job applicants in the New York City area, helping them assert their rights in claims of sexual harassment and other unlawful workplace practices. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

New York Retaliation Investigation Takes Unexpected Turn, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 14, 2017

New York Hotel Employees File Sexual Harassment Lawsuit, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 10, 2017

Sex Discrimination Lawsuit Alleges Environment of “Pervasive Harassment”, New York Employment Attorney Blog, July 31, 2017

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