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Gaps Cited in Protections for Small-Business Employees, Nonprofit Volunteers


BOLIVIA, N.C. - With the growing awareness of harassment in the workplace, many workers across the country may not realize they aren't protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The federal law protects against employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion, but there are exemptions. Kristen Colleran learned about them the hard way - after she said she was harassed while serving on the board of a nonprofit organization.

When she tried to take legal action under Title VII, she found that, as a volunteer for a nonprofit, she wasn't protected. "Well, what was shocking is that this was happening in the midst of the #MeToo movement," Colleran said. "But yes, I think that sometimes, I guess things happen at a certain time for a certain reason. So, maybe this was supposed to happen in order to start the spark or ignite the change into increasing protections." Companies with less than 15 employees also are exempt from Title VII regulations. Colleran said she met with five attorneys and has spoken with the ACLU and the National Women's Law Center. She said they've been unable to help because of the law's exemptions. Now, her only recourse is to sue the person who harassed her personally, for defamation. But Colleran said that will cost her at least $30,000.

Monica Ramirez, president and co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said people who work in the service industry or on farms are significantly affected by the exemptions, since many of those companies have fewer than 15 employees. She said the time is coming for a change in the law. "This moment has also created a type of pressure that we haven't seen on political leaders at both the state level and the federal level," Ramirez said. "I think that this particular moment in time has given us an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the widespread nature of this problem and the fact that there are workers across all industries, regardless of size of the employer."

Some small businesses and nonprofit groups that now qualify for exemptions say the potential costs of defending a Title VII claim would be too much for them to absorb. Colleran said the fact that volunteers at nonprofits are not protected is particularly troublesome because of their tax-exempt status. "I feel that they should be held to a certain level of standard in treating their volunteers or employees, because they are receiving a benefit from the government," she said. "But they're not held to any account for anything - they're simply given their tax exemption, and that's it." Educational institutions can apply for an exemption from Title VII if they can show that the anti-discrimination provisions contradict their religious beliefs. Currently, some colleges are seeking exemptions relating to sexual orientation.

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