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Sexual Harassment and the Gig Economy: Here’s What You Need to Know
Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Regular employees can report an offender to Human Resources, but freelancers, independent contractors and side gig workers typically don’t have that option.
But the absence of legal protection doesn’t mean there’s nowhere for gig economy workers to turn.
How Do Some Gig-Economy Platforms Handle Harassment?
Some companies that routinely hire gig workers have anti-harassment policies in place. Others? Not so much.
I looked at a few of the companies that are popular with freelancers and independent contractors to learn about their sexual harassment policies and what steps they take to protect workers.
Here’s what I discovered.
A lot of communication between caregivers and care seekers takes place on Care.com’s website. The platform’s messaging system is designed to spot offensive words and other inappropriate content and stop it before it reaches the recipient.
Messages, job posts and member profiles all contain a “Report to Care.com” button for users to easily report inappropriate interactions.
“If Care.com learns a member may be unsafe or has acted inappropriately, we immediately remove the member from Care.com,” according to Care.com’s Safety FAQ webpage.
The company has “a dedicated Safety team that investigates all content flagged by our members. Once a flag is received, the Safety team investigates on a case-by-case basis. If the content violates our terms, we will immediately close the user's account.”
Care.com’s Safety Center also provides tips and resources specifically tailored to caregivers.
“Caregivers do comprise a large portion of the gig workforce, and while they are not employees of Care.com, they are members of our community, and their safety is of great importance to us,” said Nancy Bushkin, Care.com’s vice president of global public relations and corporate communications.
Fiverr’s Terms of Service “condemns” harassment and does “not tolerate users who engage in targeted abuse or harassment towards other users.”
Sam Katzen, Fiverr’s senior manager of public relations, told me the company “take[s] any allegation of inappropriate conduct very seriously. Due to the digital nature of our marketplace, our Trust and Safety team is able to promptly investigate and take action in the event of an issue.”
“Disciplinary measures for harassment of any kind can include immediate removal from the marketplace as well as account suspensions.”
According to Lyft’s Terms of Service, riders and drivers are not permitted to use its platform to harass anyone.
However, Lyft also acknowledges “It is possible for others to obtain information about you that you provide… and to use such information to harass or harm you” and “disclaim[s] all liability, regardless of the form of action, for the acts or omissions of other Users.”
Lyft provides a Critical Response Line for drivers and passengers to call “if you are involved in an incident that you believe threatens your personal safety.”
I reached out to Lyft to ask what happens after a driver calls the hotline, but the company did not respond.
Shiftgig's website doesn’t offer any information about what workers should do if they encounter harassment while working a Shiftgig assignment, so I reached out to the company.
“In order to protect our Specialists from harassment at work, we share our anti-harassment policy and training course when we onboard new Specialists to the Shiftgig platform,” said Shelby Eversole, the company’s social media and public relations manager. “We also encourage Specialists to review anti-harassment training regularly after they are hired.”
Eversole didn’t offer details about what the policy and training courses include.
Eversole says Shiftgig staffs its Specialist Success hotline seven days a week to support its workers with whatever they may need, including issues related to harassment.
Taskrabbit’s Terms of Service say users are not permitted to harass other users.
However, the TOS also requires users to agree they will not hold Taskrabbit responsible for the conduct of any user, “including… stalking, harassment that is sexual or otherwise.”
Since Taskrabbit’s support resources aren’t available to people who aren’t registered as Taskers, I emailed the company to ask about its anti-harassment policy and procedures.
Taskrabbit did not respond.
Uber, UberEATS and UberRUSH’s community guidelines clearly forbid “sexual conduct between drivers and riders, no matter what.” Uber advises riders they could lose access to Uber for violating this policy or for “making comments or gestures that are aggressive, sexual, discriminatory, or disrespectful.”
Drivers can tap a “Help” button in the Uber app to report incidents that occur during a ride so its customer support team can “follow up.”
I reached out to Uber to ask what happens after a report is filed with the company but they did not respond.
What to Do if You’re Sexually Harassed While Freelancing
I checked in with Jason Bent, associate professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, for some tips on where to turn when the human resources department isn’t an option.
Of course, every sexual harassment situation is different and requires its own approach.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how an independent contractor should respond to sexual harassment while working,” said Bent.
Note: Professor Bent’s observations should not be considered legal advice. If you’ve been sexually harassed, please consult an attorney for legal advice specific to your situation.
Report the Incident
If you’re sexually harassed while working a gig, your first priority is to get yourself to safety and to call 911 if the situation warrants.
Next, report the incident to the company you’re freelancing with as soon as possible.
It can be very difficult to file a sexual harassment report, so don’t hesitate to call on a trusted friend or family member as you go through the process.
Keep Careful Records
Document everything you think might be relevant to your sexual harassment case.
- Hang on to email and text messages, work invoices and copies of incident reports.
- If you have difficulty downloading incident-related content from your computer or mobile phone, take screenshots instead.
- Take notes on what happened while the experience is still fresh in your mind.
“Generally speaking, independent contractors would probably do well to keep careful records of anything that might be considered sexual harassment,” said Bent.
“In any subsequent legal case or in any investigation conducted by the client, the details of the alleged harassment will be important. Good records would help the complaining contractor in any investigation or proceeding.”
Check Your State and Local Laws
Unfortunately, reporting a sexual harassment incident to a company doesn’t guarantee it will be investigated.
If you aren’t satisfied with the way your situation was handled, legal action could be the next option.
Bent notes that while federal employment laws don’t protect independent contractors from sexual harassment or provide its victims any recourse, some state or local laws might. An attorney can tell you for sure.
Take Care of Yourself
Sexual harassment in the workplace can be a difficult experience, especially when you’re unmoored from the protections of employment law and human resource departments.
You are not alone.
Sitting down to talk things out with a mental health counselor can help. If you don’t have insurance, here are some affordable or free ways to access mental health care services.
If you’re an assault victim in crisis and need immediate assistance, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.