By Astrid Goh

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WASHINGTON—Workplace harassment is a persistent problem that needs to be properly addressed and prevented by employers, said panelists at a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission meeting Wednesday.

Led by EEOC Chairwoman Jenny Yang, the panel included lawyers who have dealt with harassment cases and others who have suffered racial harassment first-hand.

“Harassment is the most frequent that we see in charges [filed to the EEOC]”, said Yang. “Especially in industries that include healthcare, social assistance, retail, manufacturing, and food services”.

Defined by the EEOC as any form of unwelcome, discriminatory, and recurring conduct that fosters a hostile work environment, harassment complaints have risen by almost 10,800 charges since 2007. However, the rate of increase has slowed since 2012.

Of the 88,778 charges that filed to the EEOC last year, 9,023 claimed racial discrimination.

Laudente Montoya, who is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he experienced racial harassment as a mechanic in Wyoming in 2007. He was on the panel to share his story, having filed a charge against the oil and gas well service business, J&R Well Services, where he worked.

The case concluded December 2014 after a federal judge approved a settlement of $1.2 million to be paid by the well servicing companies for “violating federal law prohibiting race and national origin harassment and retaliation”.

“My first day on the job… we had a morning meeting and I was referred to and introduced to as Uncle Beaner,” he said. ‘Beaner’ is a derogatory term used against Hispanic individuals.

“If [my friend] and I spoke Spanish on the job we were also told that ‘This is America, you’re not supposed to speak that language. We’re Americans’.”

Montoya and two other workers eventually filed charges against the company—only to be laid off two weeks into the job.

“Working that job was one of the worst times of my life… I couldn’t sleep at night,” Montoya said. .

Low-wage workplaces often foster conditions ripe for harassment, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Workplace harassment has a “particularly negative impact” on low-paid employees as they can’t afford to lose their jobs, the center said.

EEOC Commissioner Constance Barker, one of the panelists at  the commission meeting, said she wants  the EEOC to focus more on immigrants—especially young Hispanic women.

“We have very young women, as young as 14, who are allowed to work in the fields late at night,” she said. “[They are] totally isolated, where there may be no witnesses to not just sexual harassment, but sexual violence”.

According to Fatima Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, women constitute two-thirds of the 20 million workers in low-wage jobs. Forty-one percent of them are breadwinners for their households.

Low-wage jobs often allow workers little to no bargaining power—only one of the many factors that discourage them from speaking up about experiences of workplace harassment, Graves said.

“Some reported that they stopped receiving backup in dangerous situations after reporting harassment,” she said.

Among the panelists’ recommendations were early education on prejudice and racism, as well as constant dialogue and training in the workplace

“Harassment is about culture and power,” said Commissioner Charlotte Burrows. “Retaliatory harassment is also a kind of harassment we need to be thinking about… how we get employers to change that culture, and the employees who are bystanders to change their behavior as well.”