As work has transitioned from the office to the home during the coronavirus outbreak, sexual harassment will continue to be a workplace issue—even in a virtual setting—according to Alex Berke ’14, an employment lawyer at Berke-Weiss Law PLLC. Berke spoke with Fordham Law students about the potential for digital sexual harassment—and the importance of reporting such incidents—in a live training webinar.
“We haven’t been getting a lot of calls frankly about this issue right now at our office, but I expect that, in the coming months, we will start to receive those calls,” Berke said. “We’re all on Zoom and communicating with our colleagues digitally. You can still be sexually harassed, even if you’re not being touched—somebody texting you, messaging you, sending you photos. … The general universal understanding of sexual harassment is that it is something physical. That is not the case.”
The online discussion, hosted by Fordham Workers’ Rights Advocates on April 28, provided an overview about sexual harassment law—specifically what employees’ rights are and what an employee should consider when reporting an incident. Students asked questions regarding the current status of filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and how to document evidence for potential claims during the pandemic.
Berke explained that printouts of digital records, like emails, phone call logs, and messages with timestamps and people’s names, can be valuable evidence when a client comes to her firm for legal representation. She noted that some companies may have policies in place that restrict the forwarding or printing of emails and that employers may be able to access private Slack messages. “You want to know if your company has that policy because you do not want to call attention to yourself too soon and you don’t want to violate any policies,” Berke continued. “With that said, if they don’t have a policy about it, you should definitely be screenshotting everything.”
However, Berke also noted that context can pose a problem if the evidence doesn’t seem harassing at face value. “Something that’s very challenging, I think, in employment law is that, oftentimes to really understand the situation, there is a lot of context. … If you have to get too far into it, it can be challenging,” she said. “But if you are going to make a complaint to human resources, you want to give them all the tools to investigate the complaint.”
Berke-Weiss Law PLLC has a coronavirus resource page for New York-based employers and employees, which includes blog posts that answer frequently asked questions and provide related links. The firm is also offering free 15-minute consultations for those who have specific coronavirus-related workplace issues or questions.