Washington • There’s #MeToo and #NoMore.
Now it’s time for #HowMuch.
The #MeToo and #NoMore movements have heightened the public’s awareness of sexual harassment and the determination of women to fight against domestic violence and sexual assault.
While those efforts have made enormous strides, nothing moves America like money. That raises the question: How much does sexual harassment cost? What is the economic impact to the workplace of men (mostly) who impose their warped notions of sexual superiority on female colleagues?
Harvey Weinstein isn’t available to answer those questions, so a group of Democratic senators asked the Labor Department. It has no answer and is not going to look for one. More on that in a moment.
The senators, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., now have turned to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, to do the research.
“While employers tend to focus on direct costs to a business, such as legal fees or settlement amounts, the true cost of sexual harassment includes indirect costs such as decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm,” said their letter to GAO last week. “All of this is an impediment to employee performance and employers’ bottom-lines.”
They want the agency to examine the “economic effect on the U.S. economy and federal workforce.”
Uncle Sam likes to cast himself as a model employer, but his workplace suffers from sexual harassment just like any other. About one-fifth of female federal employees experienced sexual harassment between 2014 and 2016, according to a Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey, as my colleague Lisa Rein reported in April.
Before asking GAO to do the research, Gillibrand and 22 other senators pushed the Labor Department to study the economic impact of sexual harassment in January. It took until April for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to say no.
Requesting the study in a Jan. 29 letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and BLS Acting Commissioner William J. Wiatrowski, the senators said “in some instances when workplace sexual harassment occurs, employees choose to leave their job, or even their career, rather than continue to experience harassment. In fact, women who have been harassed are 6.5 times more likely to change jobs than those who have not.
“When a worker changes jobs or industries, there are costs for the employer as well as the worker,” the letter continued. “Employees lose out on the ability to be promoted or receive raises or bonuses, and employers have to cover replacement costs to find a new worker. This drives down the labor force participation rate and increases the wage gap.”
They urged Labor to “seriously address this enormous threat to our nation’s workers by collecting data on the prevalence and cost of sexual harassment that can better inform policy and procedures to address these problems.”
Wiatrowski’s April 11 response amounted to saying that the study would be too hard and too expensive.
“However, collecting this information would be complex and costly,” he wrote. “There are a number of steps involved in any new data collection, including consultation with experts, cognitive testing, data collection training, and test collection.”
He also thinks “questions about workplace harassment are very sensitive in nature. Employers may have difficulty providing the data you are requesting, as such information may not always be reported by victims and the release of such information may be subject to privacy or other restrictions.”
The senators were disappointed with Wiatrowski’s reply: “While your letter indicated the Department takes workplace sexual harassment ‘very seriously,’ your lack of commitment to collect this data undermines your assurances. . . . The notion that this work is complex by nature does not seem to be a sufficient justification to decline this request.”
They noted that the Merit Systems Protection Board did the kind of study they requested starting in the 1980s. In 1994, “the MSPB conservatively estimated that over the course of two years, sexual harassment in the federal workforce cost the government a total of $327.1 million as a result of job turnover, sick leave, and decreased productivity,” the senators wrote. “Surely the government’s capacity to collect data has only become more sophisticated over the past several decades.”
That $327.1 million would be worth $556 million today, according to a BLS inflation calculator.
Both figures seem low, particularly compared with the economic impact of racial discrimination.
Consider this from the National Equity Atlas: “Our national GDP could be 14 percent or $2 trillion higher, if the wage disparity between White employees and employees of color was eliminated.”
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, raised the case of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood producer accused of moving from casting couch dog to rapist. “We’re about to watch the Weinstein company as Exhibit A, potentially go down the tubes because of the action of its founder and its namesake,” Morial said.
“And so, the economic cost of that is going to be wide and broad. It will affect every employee in the company, it will affect contractors that work for the company.”