Fund helps working class women pursue sexual harassment cases

While the #MeToo movement began with high-profile women in entertainment, media, and politics, the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund is helping everyday women seek legal recourse for sexual harassment. 

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Saturnina Plasencia holds her newborn daughter Chloe in her New York City home on Oct. 1. Ms. Plasencia is one of many women who will be able to pursue a workplace sexual harassment case thanks to a $22 million dollar legal fund.

A dollar store cashier from Brooklyn. Five fire department paramedics in Chicago. An aspiring singer shunned by Nashville's country music establishment.

Thanks to a $22 million legal fund, they've now teamed up with top-notch lawyers to pursue #MeToo-style sex harassment cases that they otherwise couldn't have afforded.

In its early phases, the #MeToo movement was epitomized by professional women from the worlds of movie-making, media, and politics who spoke out about sexual harassment. One year after its birth, as the movement remains vibrant, there are ever-growing resources to help financially struggling women, including many from low-wage workplaces, litigate their complaints.

The most ambitious initiative is the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund. Since its launch in January by women from the entertainment industry, more than 780 attorneys have signed up for its legal network, and more than 3,550 people have asked for help. Of the $22 million contributed to the fund by more than 21,000 donors, almost $4 million has been committed already to more than 50 cases.

Overall, about 40 percent of those seeking assistance are women of color and two-thirds are low-income. Several dozen different employment sectors figure in the complaints, ranging from construction and food services to education and the military.

"We've helped people bring cases they could not have brought otherwise," said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center, which administers the fund. "People know they have a place to turn to... We can make it a reality that no matter where you work, you can work safely and with dignity."

A look at some of the pending cases:

The cashier

Under any circumstances, life would be challenging for Saturnina Plasencia. At 43, she's a single mother of three daughters, one of them just three weeks old, and has little prospect of advancing beyond low-wage employment.

But her circumstances worsened dramatically over the past 18 months, after she started a 30-hours-a-week job as cashier at a dollar store near her apartment in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. According to a complaint filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Ms. Plasencia endured sustained sexual harassment by her general manager, who insisted she date him and decreased her working hours in retaliation because she spurned him.

Plasencia said the situation deteriorated further in early February, when she told her boss that she was pregnant.

He exclaimed angrily, "The baby could have been mine," and subsequently reduced her schedule to 12 hours a week, Plasencia said. With her wages roughly $13 an hour, that left her with a paltry paycheck.

Later that month, Plasencia said she was berated and manhandled by an angry customer but received no support from her boss. That prompted her to quit; she's been unemployed since.

Plasencia said she knows other women who were sexually harassed at work but were too scared to take action. She decided to pursue a legal case at the urging of a doctor and social worker at the hospital where she received prenatal care.

"I used to put up with everything," she said. "Now I say, 'Don't be scared. Speak up.' "

Plasencia's lawyer, Katherine Bromberg of the New York Legal Assistance Group, said it's difficult to predict how the case will unfold. Cases of this type often lead to negotiations whereby the employer is asked to pay compensation for lost wages, emotional distress, and attorneys' fees, she said. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also would have the authority to seek policy changes by the employer.

Plasencia wants the general manager to understand that his behavior was unacceptable.

Noting that he has a daughter of his own, Plasencia imagines telling him, "How would you feel if they did this to her? You would want to defend her."

The paramedics

All five complainants in this case are identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe – they're seeking to remain anonymous in hopes of minimizing any retaliation and maximizing the chances of keeping their jobs

The lawsuit, filed May 1 in US District Court, alleges that they were sexually harassed by a co-worker and several superiors whose actions were protected by a "code of silence" in the Chicago Fire Department.

One plaintiff accused a chief of soliciting her for a "no-strings" sexual relationship and repeatedly texting her sexually inappropriate messages. Another claimed she was stalked by a fellow firefighter. Three of the women made allegations against a particular ambulance commander, saying he repeatedly made sexually explicit comments.

Amy Cramer, one of the women's lawyers, said the Time's Up fund decided in late July to help finance the lawsuit, which will likely extend into next year with total legal bills well into six figures.

Among other demands, the plaintiffs want the fire department to adopt and enforce new policies to combat sexual harassment. They also seek compensation for economic losses and emotional distress.

The fire department has declined to comment on the allegations or on steps it might take in response.

One of the plaintiffs, identified in the suit as Jane Doe 2, shared some of her thoughts in a written statement to The Associated Press, with Cramer serving as intermediary.

"On one hand, I have been on the receiving end of cold shoulders, whispering, and dirty looks," she wrote. "On the other hand, I have received an outpouring of support from other peers."

"On the days when it gets hard and I feel like it's not worth the fight, I draw strength from my daughters," she added. "I look at them and I see the future. If I push forward and hold my ground they ultimately benefit from the struggle."

The singer

Katie Armiger signed her first record deal at age 15; by the time she was 20 she had a top-10 album. Now, she says she's being shunned after speaking out about sexual harassment in the country music industry.

And as she runs short of funds she faces a lawsuit from her former record label, Cold River Records, alleging that her comments violated a non-disparagement clause signed in 2016 after she left Cold River.

The Time's Up fund is helping Ms. Armiger fight back by helping to finance both her defense and a countersuit contending that such clauses should not be enforced because of the harm they cause in bottling up information of public interest.

Armiger's lawyer, Alex Little, said the case may drag on for months, at a cost that could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the fund's support will enable his team to recruit multiple expert witnesses to help make the strongest possible arguments.

Armiger, now 27, has made the rounds of Nashville's music publishing companies in hopes of resuming her singing/songwriting career, winning occasional expressions of sympathy but no offers of a deal.

"They're too scared, too hesitant to work with me," she said. "I'm damaged goods because I broke with them and came forward with my story."

Earlier this year, Armiger testified in the Tennessee legislature about harassment she experienced in her music career.

"I was a teenager dealing with radio programmers touching me under tables at industry events and making inappropriate sexual remarks," Armiger said. "I was instructed not only to tolerate it, but to encourage it."

As the dueling lawsuits unfold, Armiger has enrolled in a community college, studying sociology. She's unsure what the future holds for, professionally.

"At this point, I'm not sure if Nashville is a place where I even could pursue a career, at least in country music," she said. "There aren't systems in place to protect women."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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