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Sexual harassment and discrimination laws and policies must extend protections to volunteers

By Kim Crider: I have been an active community volunteer for over 30 years. I have served on countless committees, held board seats, and served in leadership positions volunteering with the school system, service organizations and local non-profits. In all these years I have enjoyed civic engagement and feeling like I'm making a difference.

Until recently.

I volunteered with a non-profit in a variety of capacities for 10 years. The first seven years I had no issues. But over the final three years - following a leadership transition - I experienced sexual harassment and sex discrimination severe enough that I wanted to know my legal rights. Here is what I learned: Pennsylvania does not have any law or policy that protects volunteers from harassment and discrimination unless a volunteer has been in receipt of employee benefits or can otherwise be considered an employee. It is important that I stop here and take a moment to tell my story.

My experience with sexual harassment started with comments from a senior employee – let’s call him John (not his actual name) – about my appearance and statements like I was “becoming very special” to him. Like many women in these situations, these encounters made me uncomfortable, but I thought I could handle it. I also thought things would get better with interventions put in place early on. One recommendation was I should not be in a room with John by myself; I should be accompanied by another board member. An additional measure was taken to hire an executive coach to provide support in several areas to include John’s treatment of women.

Things did not get better, and over time I started experiencing anxiety debilitating enough that I stopped attending any events or meetings unless I was required to be there due to my leadership role in the organization. I found it difficult to carry out the duties I was elected by the board to perform. It took me a long time to disclose my experiences for fear of internal and external retaliation, and the first time I did disclose I only told a select few.

The sex discrimination was blatant. My authority was often circumvented. I was repeatedly told by John that, when he went to other men in similar volunteer positions to mine, they gave a different answer from mine, therefore he did not need to listen to me. John told me that I was not qualified to be in my position. One example of the overt discrimination is when John allowed a male board member to openly solicit for support for a public service opportunity during a board meeting. In contrast, when I was a candidate for a similar public service opportunity at the exact same time, John actively sought to have me removed from my volunteer position within the organization.

While the circumstances of each story of harassment and discrimination are different, the emotional, mental, and physical toll are often similar. I have already mentioned the anxiety, but there was mental and physical stress, shame, guilt, doubt, grief, anger, frustration and more. I remember after one particularly overwhelming experience I pulled into a parking lot and called a friend because I needed support. Was I overreacting? Should I be tougher? Should I quit? What will happen if I speak up more than I already had? Could this really be happening? Counseling was and still is paramount to my recovery.

I finally did disclose my situation to the full board after two former employees notified the board they had quit after experiencing similar situations with John. My disclosure prompted several meetings, during which I was openly revictimized. I heard comments like “we don’t want to ruin a man’s reputation if what she is saying isn’t true” and “he was just trying to pay her a compliment.” Then, I was subjected to the reciting of a letter from female employees stating I was the issue, not John. This letter was read in my presence in front of the board of directors. The fear I had about speaking out was realized. It was then made clear to me that I was expected to resign from my position.

I cannot go back and undo any of my experiences, but what I can do is turn my pain into power by shifting my story from one of victim to one of advocate. American non-profits thrive and survive through volunteers. Many volunteers work hundreds of hours over decades, saving agencies from paying for services or hiring additional employees. Independent Sector estimates that one volunteer hour was valued at $27.20 in 2019. That same year, volunteers in the U.S. contributed an estimated $187.7 billion in time, talent, and effort. While volunteers have some protection in other ways under the federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, volunteers are not protected from harassment and discrimination in the state of Pennsylvania. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PAHRC) will consider claims of harassment/discrimination by a volunteer only if the volunteer can show they have received some type of employee benefit from the organization for which they volunteered or can otherwise be deemed to be employees.

This needs to change.

I, along with PCAR, advocate for working to lead by example, encourage accountability and support survivors. Our community leaders need to assess their private and public organizations to make sure that everyone is well aware of their policies to evolve from the legal liability protection already available under the Volunteers Protection Act to making sure that the expectations for appropriate, respectful behavior for employees and volunteers alike are clear and that there is a process in place to hold someone accountable if they violate those standards. Real change must start with all of us as an individual to intervene on the behalf of a victim to say that real harm can come from an insensitive joke, inappropriate compliment or unwanted contact when the victim experiences it and that it is not for the actor to decide what’s right or excuse their behavior by setting their own standards that don’t take others into consideration. Actors that continue harmful behavior must be accountable for their actions.

We welcome an opportunity to engage more with state and federal policy-makers to craft legislation that helps support these goals and provides appropriate protections for volunteers to put them on a par with their colleagues who are employees so all can avoid the harm of sexual harassment and sex discrimination from ever occurring. In this regard, I encourage others to read this as a call to action for other volunteers with similar experiences to come forward and share their stories and for those that hear those stories to support the survivor how they need. Together, we can make our Pennsylvania communities safer and more respectful for one another.