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Idaho commission sees increase in sexual harassment claims

July 11, 2018

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Human Rights Commission says it has seen a noticeable increase in sexual harassment complaints following the explosion of the #MeToo movement.

Nearly a third out of all 88 complaints surrounding possible employee discrimination have included sexual harassment as an issue, according to the commission.

The allegations are filed as Title VII complaints, which is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. It’s the only federal law the state must enforce related to sexual harassment.

There has been a consistent uptick in sexual harassment allegations since October — marking a noticeable difference compared with other years when numbers remain stable throughout the year, said Benjamin Earwicker, director of the commission.

The commission only analyzed this fiscal year’s complaints regarding sexual harassment allegations. The numbers do not include how many of the complaints have been dismissed or resolved.

The popular #MeToo movement began gaining momentum last fall with men and women sharing personal stories of sexual harassment or assault on social media.

State data from the commission shows sexual harassment allegations also took off during the same time period. Between Oct. 1, 2017, and mid-January 2018, more than a quarter of all Title VII charges during the fiscal year contained a sexual harassment complaint. Those cases have only continued to spike into 2018.

“Anecdotally, I know we’ve been hearing more stories and allegations of sexual harassment of all types. I think the data show a significant increase in reported allegations of sexual harassment (between October and January) when compared with the three months before that,” Earwicker said in an email.

Idaho’s Human Rights Commission has 10 full-time employees tasked with investigating possible discriminatory cases revolving around employment, housing, education and public accommodations.

The commission is also in charge of handling complaints under federal law referred to them by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and providing information on how organizations can prevent potential hostile or discriminatory workplaces.

“The situation is analogous to how we treat suicide and mental health,” said Lourdes Matsumoto, a Boise-based attorney who filed a high-profile discrimination tort claim against the Idaho State Controller’s office last year.

“There’s definitely a crisis out there,” she said. “These are very personal and very emotional issues, and an increase in resources is absolutely going to be paramount in the future.”

Matsumoto filed her tort claim before the #MeToo campaign had spread across social media. But her case — which eventually resulted in a settlement — kicked off a bigger look at sexual misconduct in Idaho.

To her, Matsumoto said, an uptick in sexual harassment allegations is encouraging because it signifies more awareness and attention on creating a safe workplace.

“This needs to get more scrutiny,” she said. “Even if the investigations show that the allegations don’t rise to the level, it’s still a good opportunity to revisit how the workplace can be safer and making a note on how to handle situations differently.”

In fiscal year 2017, a total of 485 charges were filed, with the majority of the cases being resolved outside of state and federal court.

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