The number of sexual harassment complaints in the state have doubled since 2015, contrary to figures given to the Portland Press Herald by the Maine Human Rights Commission that originally showed a steady decline in complaints over the past 15 years.

Amy Sneirson, the commission’s executive director, apologized to the newspaper for the incorrect figures, which indicated sexual harassment filings had been dropping since 2000-01.

The corrected figures show that allegations actually increased in three of the past four fiscal years, from 73 during the period from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, to 84 in 2014-15, and then hitting an all-time high of 192 in 2015-16. Last fiscal year, there were 162 complaints of sexual harassment.

The rising numbers come as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations against men has reached the highest levels of the nation’s media, business, entertainment and political arenas in recent weeks.

Sneirson said she was “sick” over the error and could not specify how it occurred. She said the commission is understaffed and hasn’t been able to analyze why annual harassment complaints had jumped to more than 160 in the past two years.

“Everyone is already working past their capacity in enforcement,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to figure out why.”

The human rights commission has asked in the past for budget increases – $1.4 million last year – to add staff, but has been turned down, Sneirson said. The commission has no power to impose a penalty to resolve a complaint and has asked for that authority, but the Legislature has refused.

Sneirson said she could not recall a large number of complaints related to a single employer, and that she did not know of any pattern to the complaints that would explain the increases.

Arnold S. Clark, the chair of the commission, also couldn’t explain the sharp increase in harassment allegations in the past three years, especially compared with the steady decline in prior years.

Clark said the commission will keep an eye on the figures, especially given the recent high-profile accusations nationally.

“It will be interesting to see in the next year and the year after if there’s a continuing increase,” he said.

MAINE’S STRICT WORKER TRAINING LAWS

Clark said the commission hasn’t previously proposed legislation specifically dealing with a particular human rights problem in Maine, such as sexual harassment, but it would be open to commenting on any changes proposed by legislators.

Filings of sexual harassment charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also are rising, although not as dramatically as in Maine. The EEOC said filings dipped from 12,695 in fiscal year 2010 to 12,146 in fiscal year 2014. But they rebounded in the two years since, and 12,860 charges were filed in fiscal year 2016.

Maine has the country’s strictest workplace training laws on sexual harassment, requiring all companies with 15 or more employees to provide worker training on recognizing and preventing harassment, including descriptions of prohibited behavior and procedures for reporting potential violations. The training must be provided within a year of an employee’s hiring.

Supervisors are required to get more rigorous training within a year of taking a management post.

Only two other states, California and Connecticut, have mandatory training requirements for the private sector, but those states require it only for supervisors. Some states have training requirements for state workers, while others have no laws on the books requiring training.

Gov. Paul LePage, who has been a frequent critic of the human rights commission, signed a law this year that stepped up enforcement of the state’s training law, including, for the first time, fines of up to $5,000 for companies that violate laws on posting notices about what constitutes sexual harassment and how to report violations. Similar fines are imposed for companies that fail to provide employee training.

The law, which makes the state Department of Labor responsible for enforcement, took effect Nov. 1.

When asked whether his office could explain the sudden increase in sexual harassment complaints, the governor’s spokeswoman would not comment beyond pointing out the recent law signed by LePage.

EMPLOYMENT COMPLAINTS MOST COMMON

In the past year, 687 new complaints of all types were filed with the commission, with nearly 70 percent alleging rights violations in employment. The rest were almost evenly split between housing complaints and allegations of a violation in public accommodations. Less than 1 percent dealt with education.

The most common employment complaints dealt with an employer’s alleged refusal to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability, and retaliation for filing a complaint at work, Sneirson said.

Filing a complaint with the commission is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in Maine, but the commission’s findings cannot be offered as evidence in a trial, Sneirson said.

The commission staff investigates complaints and recommends a finding that reasonable grounds did or did not exist for the complaint. If either side objects to that finding, Sneirson said, the issue goes before the commission for a vote.

Sneirson said proving violations of the state’s human rights laws is often difficult. She estimated that only 5 percent of complaints result in a commission finding that “reasonable grounds” exist to believe that a violation occurred. About a third of the complaints result in a settlement between the accuser and the company before a formal determination by the commission, she said.

In the case of sexual harassment, a victim needs to show he or she was in a severe or pervasive hostile work environment because of sexual harassment.

If the case drags on before the commission without a determination, the party that filed the complaint can get a “right-to-sue” letter, indicating that the party tried to pursue resolution through the commission but is moving ahead to a trial before the process is complete. About 180 right-to-sue letters were issued by the commission last year, Sneirson said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]