As is often the case when society moves faster than legislation, sexual harassment laws are, in some ways, struggling to keep up with workforce trends. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that just under 13 percent of the American workforce is now made up of independent contractors, and that number is only expected to grow as the relationship between businesses and workers continues to evolve. But while independent contractors often enjoy greater freedom in their projects and clients, they are less protected by the sexual harassment laws meant to protect more traditional employees.
Distinguishing Between Employees and Contractors
Standard employees are hired by a company on the understanding that their services will be ongoing and, in many cases, exclusive. Contractors typically sign on for shorter-term projects and maintain their ability to take on or leave clients as they see fit. Because they have this choice of who to work with, independent contractors are not included under federal laws regulating sexual harassment claims in the workplace. Of course, struggling contractors may not have quite as much freedom to pick and choose as their status would suggest, leaving many workers forced to decide between losing an essential client and continuing to tolerate sexual harassment. If you find yourself in this situation, an attorney familiar with sexual harassment claims may be able to help.
Checking Your State Laws
Recognizing that independent contractors are a growing part of the workforce, several states have passed laws extending sexual harassment protection to non-traditional employees. Your attorney should be familiar with the laws in your state and be able to advise you on the feasibility of moving forward with a case. Even if your state has not yet passed such a law, you may still be able to take action if you can prove that you are a "de facto" employee.
Proving a De Facto Employee Relationship
Because independent contractors do not require benefits and have fewer legal protections than regular employees, many companies have taken to hiring workers as contractors and then having them perform the role of an employee. There are strict legal definitions you must meet to qualify as a de facto employee, but if you do, you should be able to sue your employer under standard sexual harassment laws.
If you are tired of dealing with inappropriate behavior and feel that you have no other options, contact a sexual harassment attorney in your area to go over the details of your case and receive expert advice on your best course of action moving forward.