Many people work full-time jobs with a single employer that expects them to show up everyday to work a standard 8-hour shift. However, it’s estimated that about one-third of American workers are now part of the increasingly large “gig economy.” A gig economy is characterized by temporary and flexible work offered by freelancers and independent contractors. Many experts believe that the gig force will continue to grow in the years to come, and that freelancers and contractors will eventually be the majority of the workforce.

There are many benefits to being a part of the gig economy. Working as a freelancer or independent contractor gives workers more freedom to choose their own hours, work with a number of different clients, and be their own boss. But, life is far from perfect for a worker in the gig economy. Many freelancers and contractors are sexually harassed by their colleagues, and getting protection may be difficult for these independent workers.

Why Workers in the Gig Economy Are Vulnerable

Numerous studies have shown that sexual harassment can—and does—occur in any type of workplace. However, these studies have also shown that workers in low-wage service industries are the most vulnerable to sexual harassment. Why? Since workers in these industries do not need any sort of specialized training in order to do these jobs, they can easily be replaced. Employees in these positions often believe if they don’t put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, they will be replaced with someone who is able to tolerate it. These employees are usually in no position to live without a paycheck, so they think they have no other choice but to deal with sexual harassment.

Freelancers and independent contractors often find themselves in the same position even though their jobs usually do require specialized training or unique skills. Why? There are countless freelancers and independent contractors who are looking for work, so these workers know they can easily be replaced. Because of this, they often tolerate unpleasant working conditions simply so they don’t lose their jobs.

Freelancers and independent contractors also rely heavily on word-of-mouth referrals. If one client is happy with their work, they often use this client as a reference or ask the client to refer their colleagues to them. Freelancers and independent contractors may worry that speaking out about a client’s sexual misconduct could affect their ability to use this client as a reference or land new clients in the future.

Challenges Freelancers and Contractors Face

Full-time workers can turn to Human Resources to complain about sexual harassment in the workplace, but freelancers and contractors do not have this option. As a result, they often don’t know where to begin when it comes to reporting harassment. It’s recommended that independent workers report the harassment to the company that you are contracted to work with, however sometimes the person who you would report the harassment to is the one who is harassing you.

Plus, the federal laws that protect workers from sexual harassment and discrimination do not cover those who work as freelancers or independent contractors. Therefore, workers in the gig economy may feel as if dealing with sexual harassment is simply part of the job. But, that’s not the case. Everyone—including independent contractors and freelancers—has the right to work in an environment that is free from sexual harassment.

What Workers in the Gig Economy Should Do After Being Sexually Harassed

It’s true that the federal laws prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination do not cover freelancers and contractors. However, California is one of the few states that has passed legislation to protect these vulnerable workers. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits harassment of employees, interns, volunteers, applicants, and independent contractors. Therefore, the law provides the same protection from sexual harassment to both independent contractors and full-time employees.

Independent contractors who believe they have been sexually harassed can file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). An investigator from the DFEH will reach out to you within 60 days to get more information about your complaint. At this time, you can also submit documentation that supports your allegations.

The DFEH will review all of the information submitted before deciding whether or not to accept the case. If the case is accepted, a formal complaint will be sent to the harasser, who will have an opportunity to respond to the allegations. If the case is not accepted, the DFEH will give the independent contractor the right to move forward with a lawsuit on their own. The DFEH will continue on with their investigation to determine if the employer truly did harass the independent contractor.

If the DFEH finds evidence that the employer did sexually harass the independent contractor, the agency will encourage both parties to go to mediation to resolve their issues. Mediation is not always effective. If it doesn’t work, the DFEH may choose to file a lawsuit against the harasser on behalf of the independent contractor. But unfortunately, sometimes the DFEH chooses not to move forward with a lawsuit. In this case, it’s important to work with an employment law attorney who can pick up where the DFEH left off.

Independent contractors may be able to recover out-of-pocket losses, compensation for their emotional distress, and punitive damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit. This legal action can also force the employer to change their policies and offer additional training to their employees to ensure no one else is ever sexually harassed by someone in their organization again.

Have you been sexually harassed at work? If so, seek legal representation from an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible. The team of employment law attorneys at Shegerian & Associates will fight tirelessly to protect your rights and hold the harasser accountable. Contact us today by calling 1-800-GOT-FIRED.