Speaking of Women's Rights

Monday, February 11, 2019

Books Behind Bars: How Title IX Protects Incarcerated Students’ Rights

By Olivia Ortiz

In the United States of America, more than two million people are currently incarcerated. Many prisons and jails offer vocational programs, which can and do have powerful effects on incarcerated people in their reentry into society outside the prison walls. Like any other students in a federally-funded educational program, incarcerated students are guaranteed protection against sex discrimination by Title IX. However, incarcerated students still experience significant barriers to these educational programs, in large part because they are not granted the rights due to them. Incarcerated students and their advocates can utilize Title IX as a fulcrum to fight for the education which is their legal right and which they deserve.

Incarcerated students have worked tirelessly to fight for recognition under Title IX. In Jeldness v. Pearce, incarcerated women sued the Oregon State Department of Corrections (OSDC), alleging sex discrimination. The OSDC’s women’s prison offered only two vocational courses: office administration and cosmetology. Two OSDC prisons for men offered twelve courses. Women were permitted access to these courses. However, OSDC cited “penological necessity” to force invasive searches on women attending courses at the men’s prison. These invasive searches frequently made women late to class, often so late that they could not attend class at all. Furthermore, men were paid for participating in certain classes. Women were not.

In 1994, the Ninth District Court of Appeals held in Jeldness that Title IX and its regulations protected incarcerated students in vocational programs. Although a prison may not be considered a traditional educational institution, the fact that a prison receives federal funding for such programs requires that prisons follow Title IX. The court held that “penological necessity” does not exempt prisons from compliance with Title IX. (Jeldness, 30 F.3d at 1229–1230) Further, the court held that paying men, but not women, for the same course constituted not only disparate impact but disparate treatment under Title IX.

Although courts and regulations have repeatedly and explicitly stated that Title IX protects incarcerated students, those students require further support to make their rights a reality. Incarcerated people face high rates of sexual violence not only by fellow incarcerated people but also by those who should be enforcing their rights: prison staff and administrators. The Survived and Punished Project has several resources for supporting incarcerated people. Organizations supporting survivors should explore offering Title IX workshops to prisons and uplifting incarcerated students’ voices in their advocacy. Individuals can support incarcerated students by becoming involved with and donating to projects like Survived and Punished.

The beauty of Title IX lies in its broad applicability. The character of the law affords students protection even at non-traditional campuses like prisons. Still, unlawful obstacles obstruct these students from their legal rights. Title IX, survivor, and anti-carceral advocates must consider how Title IX regulations, like those proposed by the Trump Administration, impact incarcerated students. If incarcerated students’ Title IX rights exist only in theory, incarcerated students do not have Title IX rights. It is only when incarcerated students can access their rights in reality that Title IX promises anything at all.

Olivia Ortiz is a leader of Legal Voice's Campus Sexual Assault Work Group. She is a first year JD student at the University of Washington School of Law and tweets at @ortizoliviaa

Image credit: Simon Booth-Lucking | CC BY-NC 2.0

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Love as Resistance

By Rosann Mariappuram

“Love is an action, never simply a feeling.”
– bell hooks

When I describe Legal Voice’s work I often talk about fighting sexism, dismantling systems of oppression, and building power through the strategic use of law and advocacy. I use language that reflects the pro-active, take-the-offensive approach that I love about Legal Voice’s work. But another powerful way to describe our work is through love. Legal Voice’s work is rooted in love for those we serve and the love we receive from our community of donors, supporters, and allies.

Black feminist scholar bell hooks* constantly centers the radical power of love in her writings. Her essay “Love as a Practice of Freedom” calls for all of us to shape our political vision through an ethic of love. She explains that when we view oppression only through our personal experiences we develop blind-spots; that we seek to end the kinds of hate that directly harm us out of self-interest and self-protection. But blind-spots allow us to maintain the status quo and to be complicit in dominant cultures like racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. An ethic of love takes the opposite approach. Love requires us to expand our point of view and see how systems of oppression are interdependent. Love forces us to stop only looking out for our own needs. Love makes us fight for collective freedom.

hooks also points out that an ethic of love is necessary to address the anguish and pain that dominant culture causes. Love allows us to heal both personally and politically. The number of attacks by the federal government in 2018 on sexual assault survivors, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and immigrants affirms this need for an ethic of love. The communities Legal Voice serves are under attack and only through love can we heal and move forward.

Gratitude is one of my favorite ways to put love into action. So as we wrap up 2018 I send my thanks to each and every person in the Legal Voice community. Our work and this movement wouldn’t be possible without you!

*bell hooks is a celebrated feminist scholar, artist, and writer. She has published over three dozen books including cultural criticisms, personal memoirs, poetry collections, and children's books. Her writings cover gender, race, class, spirituality, teaching, and the role of media. Visit the bell hooks Institute to learn more about her work and life.

Rosann Mariappuram is a 2018–19 If/When/How Reproductive Justice Fellow for Surge and Legal Voice.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Community Spotlight: ROC-Seattle

Q&A with ROC-Seattle's Elena Perez
and Legal Voice's Sarah MacDonald

The restaurant industry is riddled with inequities: Few other industries have such widely accepted low wages; workers often rely heavily on tips to make a living, which perpetuates racism, sexism, and sexual harassment; and exploitative workplace policies are all too common, especially for immigrant and refugee communities who are disproportionately represented in the industry.

Today is National Food Service Workers Day—a day when we don't just show appreciation for the folks who prepare, cook, and serve our meals, but when we also shine a light on the daily challenges they face in the workplace.

I asked Elena Perez of ROC-Seattle a few questions about the organization's current work at the intersection of low-wage work; racial, gender, and immigrant justice; and workplace sexual violence. Read on to learn more!


Who is ROC United?

Founded initially after September 11th, 2001 as a worker relief center for affected restaurant workers and their families, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) has grown into a national organization with restaurant worker members in chapters in New York, California, Boston, Chicago, Michigan, New Orleans, Pennsylvania, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Across the country, we have activated 130,000 restaurant workers, employers, and consumers to improve wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry.

Raising the wage and labor standards in the restaurant industry is a matter of economic, social, gender, and racial justice. ROC United is committed to work with workers, employers, consumers, workers’ rights advocates, and legislators to eliminate unjust labor practices dating back to the slavery era, professionalize the industry, and bring dignity to the work and lives of hardworking men and women in some of the lowest paid occupations in the country.

What is one of the most pressing issues facing restaurant workers in Washington State?

ROC-Seattle’s primary goal is to give support to low-wage restaurant workers in the daily challenges that they face in the industry. Overall, across this work, we recognize the need to collectively build power and voice for restaurant workers in our region. The issues we are centering on currently are: defending and expanding on "One Fair Wage" in Washington; building lines of defense and support for immigrants and refugees in the industry who are increasingly targeted in today's political climate; and confronting racial and gender inequities in the industry that underlie disparities in wages, treatment, and opportunities for advancement for women and people of color.

Washington State is one of eight states with a legislated One Fair Wage policy and one of seven states where this policy has been fully implemented. One Fair Wage refers to a policy that guarantees all workers, including those in tipped occupations, the full minimum wage with tips on top. As local jurisdictions pursue minimum wages higher than the state's, the greatest challenge is to ensure that tipped workers are not carved out from local legislation, and that labor rules issued by the state are explicit and unambiguous in protecting the equal wage regime at all local levels.

Wage theft is also a continuing challenge in the restaurant industry as are practices that mislead customers in believing service charges go to servers when they legally belong to the business owners. Until the industry pays restaurant workers a living wage, tips are necessary to complement the minimum wage. Restaurant workers are professionals in every sense, yet not recognized as such with corresponding compensation.

What organizing strategies is ROC-Seattle currently working on to address these issues?

We are proud that Washington is one of the eight states in our nation with One Fair Wage, and are thankful for our State's leadership in defending the civil rights of immigrants and refugees, and other targeted communities. But there is still work to do to make economic, social, racial and gender justice real for workers throughout the restaurant industry. Two prime areas of organizing are:

  1. Defending workers' rights under One Fair Wage. We are currently advocating with the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) to make sure tip theft protections apply equally to ALL workers in ALL cities in Washington. In partnership with Legal Voice, we are urging L&I to revise their Legal Guidance on Tips & Service Charges to make it clear that every single tipped worker in Washington has the right to tips and service charges in addition to their hourly minimum wage. One Fair Wage in WA is being undermined by L&I's lack of clarity about workers' rights to full tips and service charges when they earn higher minimum wages under local ordinances in cities like Seatac, Seattle and Tacoma. Tips and service charges should never be used by owners to meet their local minimum wage obligations! During L&I's public comment period, we organized over 150 individuals from across the State to call for equal protections for tipped workers, and we continue to organize with our members to ensure L&I fully implements and enforces WA's tip theft protections.

  2. Due to a combination of policy, industry, and cultural trends, the very visible and diverse restaurant workforce has been a prominent target of harassment and hate crimes. For immigrants working in the industry, they are often isolated both physically and socially, with many speaking limited English and segregated into back-of-house jobs. There are real and perceived vulnerabilities that are preyed upon by unethical employers leading to rampant wage theft, harassment, and lack of compliance with labor laws, with workers afraid to respond because of fear of retaliation. In response, ROC-Seattle is conducting extensive community-based outreach in English and Spanish to educate restaurant industry workers on their legal rights on the job and offering free legal support to address their daily challenges at work. We currently offer Know Your Rights/Conozca sus Derechos trainings for workers and restaurant employers around Labor Standards and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) Activity, and offer additional trainings through ROC's Sanctuary Restuarants movement including Sexual Harassment 101 and LGBTQ Worker Rights.

In both campaigns, we are building power with a strong base of worker members in ROC-Seattle advocating for fair wages, and safe, healthy and equitable working conditions.

As in so many other service jobs, women and people of color are overly represented in low-wage restaurant work. Why do you think this is?

I'll start with some numbers:

  • Half of Americans, at some point in their lives, work in the restaurant industry. 
  • Women comprise 66% of all tipped workers. 
  • Women in tipped restaurant occupations earn 80% of their male counterparts’ wages; female servers in America experience a poverty rate that is three times that of their male counterparts. 
  • Restaurant workers of color earn 56% less income on average compared to equally qualified white workers. 
Our "Behind the Kitchen Door" research found a $5 per hour wage gap between white men and women of color in Seattle's full service industry jobs. One of the underlying causes for this is that restaurant workers of color access living wage fine dining occupations only 73% of the time, compared to equally qualified white workers.

All these national statistics point to an issue of a great gender and racial occupational disparity that has its roots in a long history of institutionalized racism, leading to economic inequality that persist in our society from generation to generation. ROC has been working for years to address these issues through RAISE, its high road employer program; CHOW, a worker training program which opens the door to professions in fine dining for women and people of color; and advocacy for racial, gender, immigrant, and economic justice. In Seattle and the Bay, ROC is confronting racial and gender occupational segregation in the industry through our Racial Equity Project where we partner with restaurant employers who seek to advance racial equity in their establishments; create career ladders for workers through CHOW training; and seek broad policy solutions to address race and gender-based occupational segregation in the industry.

As we’ve learned through the #MeToo movement, workplace sexual violence is widespread in low-wage jobs and is often fueled by a power imbalance between a worker and their employer, supervisor, or even their customer. What kinds of power dynamics are present when restaurant workers are on the job?

While 7% of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than 14% of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry—disproportionately more than from any other industry. Recent studies report that more than 90% of restaurant workers in the District of Columbia and more than 80% in New York report experiencing sexual harassment at work. Workers in states like Washington, who do not have a lower tipped minimum wage, experience sexual harassment at half the rate of those working in states where they must depend on customers’ tips for the bulk of their income. But sexual harassment is still a significant issue in the industry even in the One Fair Wage states and affects workers long after they leave the industry.

Because the experiences of sexual harassment are so extreme, overt, and widespread in the restaurant industry, women tend to marginalize their experiences of inappropriate workplace behavior later in their careers as they feel those experiences are “never as bad” as what they have had to put up with as young servers. When workers depend on customers to pay a significant portion of their compensation through tips, they are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior. And it is not just customers who decide their tips, but also managers who control shift and table assignments, and even co-workers who impact the perceived value of service indirectly and therefore might have power over the server (e.g. server’s tips may depend on the quality or speed of the work of kitchen and support staff).

How can people in the Legal Voice community support restaurant workers and ROC Seattle’s mission?

Join us! Whether you are a current or former industry worker, a restaurant owner or manager, or an "eater" who loves to advance social justice while dining out, we have a home for you. Stay current on our campaigns through our national website and our local Facebook page. If you have ideas for collaboration or want to volunteer for ROC-Seattle, please contact me, Elena Perez, at elena@rocunited.org.

Photo courtesy of ROC-Seattle

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Power Over Profit: Why We Should All Care About the Trump Administration's Response to Breastfeeding

By Jacqueline Schafer

American culture typically portrays breastfeeding as nurturing, gentle, natural—but rarely as a form of power. But recently, while watching The Handmaid's Tale, I started to think of nursing in terms of the powerful independence that it represents from corporate America.

For those unfamiliar with the popular TV series loosely based on Margaret Atwood's classic novel: facing a fertility crisis, the dystopian nation of Gilead enslaves a group of women who have successfully given birth before, forcing them to bear children for Gilead's military leadership. As cruel and patently evil as Gilead's male leaders are, they apparently deeply respect the role of breastfeeding in early childhood development and allow the Handmaids to breastfeed their infants for a period of time before separating them from their children. The regime’s respect for breastfeeding results in several key plot points that give the brutally oppressed Handmaids a rare source of leverage.

As extreme as the show is, it reminded me that when a government promotes breastfeeding, it necessarily recognizes the latent power of women* to provide nourishment for their children. The Trump Administration actually recognized this power when it sought to prevent the introduction of an updated resolution from the World Health Organization (WHO) this spring. The resolution stated the scientifically uncontroversial concepts that governments should promote breastfeeding—because of research demonstrating that it results in the best outcomes for children, particularly in developing countries and low income communities where children are at risk if formula money runs low—and should limit advertising about unhealthy food products, such as infant formula with added sugar.

The Atlantic does a good job of explaining the harmful international impact of advertisements that promote infant formula over breastfeeding, and why infant formula companies aggressively lobby the American government to maximize profits. It is stunning that infant formula companies are so deeply threatened by the power of women to feed their own children that they sought to manipulate the WHO’s official voice on the subject.

Why does WHO recognition matter at the local and national level? Official recognition of the benefits of breastfeeding by the WHO has significant societal implications for women's economic security and power. One point to consider is that when state legislators and Congressmembers draft legislation, they look to international norms and the most current research as justification for their bills. If the most prominent health care organization in the world is silent about the need to promote breastfeeding, it becomes easier for legislators to ignore the scientific consensus and pass health care legislation that lacks express protections or benefits for nursing parents. And by not supporting laws and interventions that make it easier for people to breastfeed, that necessarily creates demand for formula—which is coincidentally manufactured by corporations that often donate to specific politicians’ campaigns.

These efforts to deny the promotion of breastfeeding as an international norm may not seem as pressing in light of the other threats to women's health by the Trump Administration, but if I've learned anything from The Handmaid’s Tale it is that words matter. Omitting conclusive research from international dialogue can reduce societal and workplace support for breastfeeding, thereby limiting the ability of women to choose that journey. In honor of World Breastfeeding Week, women should recognize their power to nourish the next generation and continue to fight back against those who would try to diminish that power for profit.

*I use the term “women” here, but I recognize that not all people who breastfeed/chestfeed are women, and that not all people who give birth can or choose to breastfeed/chestfeed.

Jacqueline Schafer is an advocate for the safety and success of children, families, and the communities where they live. She is pro bono cooperating counsel for Legal Voice, a world traveler, and in-house counsel for a national child welfare nonprofit.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Can Title IX Protect Me from Sexual Harassment at My Internship?

By Olivia Ortiz

Summer is upon us, and students across the country are exchanging their classrooms for internships. Internships are valuable learning experiences that allow students to apply their educations to real world professions.

But these experiences are highly susceptible to sexual harassment. Unpaid interns are particularly vulnerable as courts have ruled and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission policy dictates that, with some exceptions, unpaid interns do not have the protections afforded by the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination. However, unpaid student interns who are participating in their internship for academic credit do have a form of recourse by virtue of Title IX.

Title IX is a 46 year-old civil rights law protecting students against gender discrimination in “educational programs.” Both the Third and Sixth Circuit U.S. Courts of Appeals have ruled that internships taken for academic credit qualify as “educational programs” under Title IX. Although internship sites themselves may not qualify as “educational institutions,” they can house “educational programs” for which federally funded educational institutions are responsible. This means that schools are responsible for responding to sexual harassment against students in the sites of their for-credit internships.

In one case, Varlesi v. Wayne State University, a Master of Social Work student experienced pregnancy discrimination at her site for a required fieldwork component. When she reported the discrimination to her school, the school official dismissed her complaint. The student’s fieldwork supervisor at the site proceeded to retaliate against her by assigning a failing grade, leaving the student unable to graduate. This example highlights the unique way that harassment can impact students in internships for credit; their academic progress depends on their supervisor and the successful completion of the internship.

Students in internships for credit should be aware that they have protections under Title IX. If a student experiences sexual harassment during their internship for credit, they have the option of seeking help through their school in complaint proceedings. As in any other educational program, schools are obligated to address complaints of sexual harassment and violence in internships for credit.

Furthermore, schools should take preventative measures to ensure that both students and for-credit internship sites are aware of their rights and responsibilities under Title IX. Arizona State University, for instance, created a fact sheet detailing these responsibilities for employers who host their students. Sending a Title IX fact sheet to students and employers affirms the institution’s commitment to Title IX, equips students with powerful knowledge, and apprises the host site of its responsibilities in offering this learning opportunity.

Learning opportunities should be immersive and educational, and internships for credit are no different. Sexual harassment in any learning environment is counterproductive to these ends, and sexual harassment poses unique challenges in internships. By embracing Title IX and educating both employers and students, institutions will encourage their students to thrive for many summers to come.

For more information on your rights as a student in Washington State, check out students.legalvoice.org.

Olivia Ortiz is a leader of Legal Voice’s Campus Sexual Assault Work Group. She is an incoming JD student at the University of Washington School of Law and tweets at @ortizoliviaa