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EEOC complaints for sexual harassment are booming thanks to Harvey Weinstein and other factors

The lesson for employers is clear: The EEOC, even in this current pro-business climate in D.C., is active and growing.

In this Oct. 11, 2018 photo, Harvey Weinstein arrives to court in New York. The film producer is cited as one reason for the rise in EEOC complaints involving sexual harassment.
In this Oct. 11, 2018 photo, Harvey Weinstein arrives to court in New York. The film producer is cited as one reason for the rise in EEOC complaints involving sexual harassment.Read moreSeth Wenig

It's not only been a great year for many U.S. businesses, but an equally good one for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission too.

According to their just-published Performance and Accountability Report, employers paid more than half a trillion dollars ($505 billion) to resolve disputes affecting almost 68,000 victims of discrimination in the workplace with the commission, a rise of 4.3 percent from the $484 million reported last year. For this you can blame Harvey Weinstein and the impact of the #MeToo movement.

Cases that involved sexual harassment have become the most active areas of enforcement, jumping more than 50 percent year over year. More than 554,000 calls and emails as well as 200,000 inquiries were handled by the commission this year regarding sexual harassment and other potential discrimination claims.

"Through the public attention given sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement this past fiscal year, the EEOC ramped up its role as enforcer, educator, and leader," Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic said in a statement. Lipnic, and the two other active members of the five-member commission, were appointed during the Obama administration. The other two seats of the commission remain open pending Congressional approval.

One of the biggest reasons behind the increase in filed claims was the EEOC's expansion of its website in 2017. It used to have a manual process that needed to be initiated with face-to-face interviews. Employees with a grievance now can use the commission's Digital Charge System to perform self-screenings, submit a pre-charge inquiry, schedule an appointment for an intake interview, electronically sign the charge of discrimination, choose to participate in mediation, request an electronic copy of documentation and submit their own documents online.

The EEOC has seen a 30 percent increase in inquiries and more than 40,000 intake interviews as a result of the upgraded site.

The commission has also been on a tear to educate the public. About 399,000 individuals received information about employment discrimination and their rights and responsibilities in the workplace through the commission's outreach programs, which also included more than 300 "Respectful Workplace" training sessions that reached over 9,800 employers in both the private and public sectors.

The lesson for employers is clear: the EEOC, even in this current pro-business and de-regulatory environment in D.C., is active, busy and growing. Employees with grievances can now more easily file claims and there is significantly more awareness about sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace than ever before.

If you're an employer, it's a good idea to reach out to a labor attorney, employment consultant or your payroll service for help. Policies need to be reviewed, employee handbooks need to be updated and internal procedures for handling claims need to be implemented and enforced. Not doing so could be costly and create a PR nightmare.

"As the #MeToo movement continues to spur a national dialogue regarding workplace sexual harassment, the EEOC is firmly committed to ensuring that workers are free from a sexually hostile work environment," Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director of the EEOC's Memphis District Office, said in a Marketwatch report. "If nothing else, the stigma around victimization has been shattered and some of the shame has been alleviated for a lot of individual victims. A lot of people have been mobilized by outrage over things that have happened to them and have been more willing to talk about it."