Editor’s note: This story is incorrect because of erroneous information provided to the Portland Press Herald by Maine’s Human Rights Commission. The commission’s executive director apologized to the newspaper for the incorrect figures on Nov. 28, 2017, and provided corrected figures that show the number of allegations actually rose for three of the last four fiscal years.

Allegations of sexual harassment have exploded in recent weeks, with politicians, entertainers and media figures accused of behaving inappropriately with women and, in one case, teenage girls.

But in Maine, the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the state’s human rights panel has been dropping for more than a decade, from a high of 170 in 2000-01 to 58 in 2016-17.

Experts said there are a number of factors that could explain the decline, and they are uncertain if the publicity surrounding high-profile recent allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Senate candidate Roy Moore, television host Charlie Rose, Sen. Al Franken and others will embolden more victims to come forward in Maine and elsewhere.

“I hope that it has an impact, but will it make harassers change their behavior? I don’t know,” said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Factors that could play into the drop in numbers include more companies instituting training and policies that seek to prevent workplace harassment, but also the increasing use of nondisclosure agreements or arbitration that can stymie victims’ ability to file complaints with the state in the first place.


Maine is a leader in one aspect of dealing with sexual harassment – training to prevent it. A state law passed in 1991 requires companies with 15 or more employees to provide sexual harassment training for new employees within a year of being hired. New managers and supervisors are also supposed to get additional training within a year of assuming their positions.

California and Connecticut also require such training, but only for supervisors in companies with 50 or more employees. Other states generally require training for state workers only and encourage private employers to providing training on preventing sexual harassment and handling complaints, but don’t require it.

Amie Parker, the Maine state director for the Society of Human Resource Management, said she thinks that complaints filed with the commission have fallen over the years primarily because of a greater emphasis on preventing such incidents in the first place, generational changes in which younger workers have a greater respect for boundaries between co-workers, and a greater sense that those who sexually harass in the workplace will face severe repercussions, including the loss of a job.

She also said that Maine is still dominated by small businesses, and the owners of those companies are starting to recognize the huge impact that even one case of sexual harassment could have, both financially and to a company’s public reputation.

“The risk is huge for the employer” because most cases of harassment are filed against a company for allowing a workplace climate in which harassment can take place or not taking steps to address harassment, rather than the individual accused of harassment, Parker said.

Sneirson said there may be other reasons for the drop in harassment complaints, including company policies on sexual harassment that require an accuser and the accused to go through arbitration, rather than the courts, to address the complaints. Most settlements also include nondisclosure agreements, she said, and those cases won’t show up in any statistics because they’re handled privately.


Sneirson also said the Maine Human Rights Commission has a statute of limitations that requires a victim to file a complaint within 300 days of the harassment. Filing with the commission is a key step because victims are generally required, under Maine law, to pursue “administrative remedies” – a hearing before the commission – before filing a court case.

“A lot of folks are not aware of the timeline,” Sneirson said, and it isn’t unheard of for cases to be drawn out to foreclose the possibility of filing with the commission.

David Webbert, an attorney who specializes in employment law, said sexual harassment cases in Maine are increasingly handled outside of court, which he said means companies and harassers aren’t being held publicly responsible for their acts.

“It’s getting firmly established in Maine,” he said of steps such as mandatory private arbitration of complaints. “It’s cutting out the jury and it’s cutting out public accountability.” Beyond that, he said, Maine law limits actions against small businesses, which also makes it difficult to pursue harassment claims.

For instance, he said, state law limits compensatory damages in harassment claims from businesses that employ fewer than 15 workers to $20,000.

“That’s really low for someone to go through a sexual harassment trial,” he said.


And, Webbert said, those cases are decided before a judge, not a jury, which might be more sympathetic to harassment claims.

Webbert is skeptical that the rash of high-profile accusations – and the public’s increasing likelihood to believe a victim’s account – will change the culture enough to give all victims the confidence to come forward with claims.

“I do think that the recent examples show that for even a relatively empowered woman, (the message is) ‘don’t complain,’ ” he said. “The word gets around that you’re better off not complaining, because we criticize the victim and blame the victim. It’s all this second-guessing of everything the victim does.”

Still, Webbert said he’s heartened that, in many of the recent accusations, public opinion seems inclined to believe the victims and action against the harassers by employers has generally been swift and strong.

“I’m not sure it’s really turning the tide, but I hope it is,” he said.


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