“A hospitality worker was fired after she filed a sexual harassment case,” Tina Tchen, the former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, told me. “A prison worker, similar situation — made a sexual harassment complaint and was fired.”
We sat in an empty, expensive-looking conference room at the Washington, D.C., law offices of Buckley Sandler, the firm where Tchen now works, on a humid, drizzly February morning. Tchen, who lives on Chicago’s North Side and leads the Buckley Sandler office in that city, is a longtime member of the Obama inner circle, and is thus familiar with D.C.’s damp winters. She has known the now-former president so long that she cannot remember when they first met. “It was somewhere back in that dim past,” she told me. “It could’ve been during a voter rights project; it could’ve been when he was running for state Senate.” After a short stint in Illinois state politics after law school at Northwestern, Tchen made her name in corporate law, and had no particular yen for public service until the Obama campaign. “It was a very unforeseen opportunity to go to the White House,” she said. While there, Tchen took on a variety of roles, including executive director for the White House Council on Women and Girls, a task force established in 2009 to make federal agencies prioritize the needs of women. The council oversaw a wide-ranging set of programs, from helping the Coast Guard modernize its strategy for responding to sexual assault to creating a mentorship program for female Peace Corps volunteers. (The Trump administration appears to have disbanded the White House Council on Women and Girls.) Tchen now hopes to make life better for women from outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On top of her day job, for which she often advises corporate clients on creating policies regarding sexual harassment and gender disparity, Tchen leads the legal program of a new organization called Time’s Up, which was created in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo and has pledged to help women in tenuous situations caused by workplace sexual harassment. Support from high-profile celebrities and activists, including marquee Hollywood women like Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes, and Kerry Washington, has drawn far more media attention than average to the birth of a specialized nonprofit. Although Time’s Up’s most prominent public advocates have, thus far, been rich, famous women, the group’s aim is to help people out of the spotlight. “Low-income workers, in particular, have had a hard time finding lawyers in the past. When you’re a low-income worker, what your [financial] recovery is at the end is based on your wages. It isn’t going to be a lot. So it’s hard to find lawyers who will take a case like that.”
Time’s Up promises those who have spoken out something else desperately needed: professionals who can listen and advocate for them, through the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. But while its starry debut generated headlines and flooded the new organization with more than $21 million in donations, it’s been less clear what the outcome of its organizing will actually look like.
“It’s only been six weeks, so no wins yet,” Tchen told me. Arranging a survivor’s day in court takes much longer than a news cycle or two.
On January 1, the Time’s Up movement announced itself with an open letter that pledged to fight harassment in the workplace and was signed by hundreds of women. “The struggle for women to break in, to rise up the ranks and to simply be heard and acknowledged in male-dominated workplaces must end; time’s up on this impenetrable monopoly,” the letter said, citing another open letter from 700,000 female farmworkers published the previous fall as an inspiration for the initiative.
Time’s Up’s first big public moment came during the Golden Globe Awards, when many women guests and presenters wore black as a way to show solidarity with its aims. It was a performance of commitment, emotionally moving, but not necessarily symbolic of a movement. While the lavish black gowns drew eyeballs, the defense fund is the organization’s most promising avenue for change. Tchen is focused on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering necessary to bring perpetrators and complicit companies toward justice, through legal work that will drag on far longer than an awards ceremony. “Litigation can take a long time,” Tchen said.
During its first two months, the defense fund has focused on connecting a wide network of lawyers. “I think we’re up to about 500 volunteer lawyers across the country,” Tchen said. “The way it works is, people who are looking for help fill out a form on the website. If we need to, we’ll call them back to get a little more information. Then they are given the names of three lawyers in their geographic area, and the lawyers have all committed to giving at least a free consultation to each person. Then the client can decide whether that’s a lawyer she wants to use.”
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is administered by the National Women’s Law Center in D.C., a 46-year-old organization with a long history of advocating for women’s causes. The NWLC was a natural partner; the week after the first New York Times story about Weinstein broke, the center announced an initiative called the Legal Network for Gender Equity, which connects women who need representation for a whole host of legal issues, from sexual harassment cases to pay equality, with appropriate legal counsel. Now that the two organizations are partnered, this network directs people with sexual-harassment-related cases to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, and it has provided a framework for Time’s Up to start connecting women in need with lawyers who can help. “We’re hoping that a lot of the cases will be handled pro bono,” Tchen said. “But many lawyers can’t afford to do that, and especially in an employment law practice, a lot of employment lawyers operate in very small firms.” That’s where some of the money Time’s Up has raised will come in.
According to Emily Martin, the general counsel and vice president for education and workplace justice at the NWLC, more than 1,500 people (98 percent of them women) have reached out for help with cases of workplace harassment or related employer retaliation since the fund debuted. “There’s been a huge surge of requests,” she told me over the phone.
“We’ve had a rush of calls,” Tchen confirmed, noting that several corporate firms had sent volunteer lawyers to the National Women’s Law Center to deal with the overflow. “The requests that have come in have spanned every kind of industry, from financial services to hotel workers to prison guards.” The fund’s leaders are aware that a range of professional situations will present a range of vulnerabilities. “If you are an independent contractor in the gig economy, in most parts of the country, you don’t have any protections against sexual harassment,” Martin said, noting that federal law does not cover gig economy workers, and that California is one of few states with adequate state laws covering gig workers. “A lot of people are left without any meaningful legal recourse — even if they experience the most overt and grotesque forms of harassment.”
In the next few weeks, the fund will start a second phase, instructing lawyers how to apply for some of its $21 million in funding for cases they take. The lawyers will have to state, in their application, the ways in which the cases they take meet what Martin calls “priority criteria” for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “For example, the case is being brought on behalf of a woman in a low-wage job,” Martin said. “Or, if the case has the potential to establish an important legal principle, or if it’s the representation of an individual who is being threatened by some very high-profile, prominent harasser.”
The morning I visited Tchen, The New Yorker had published an investigation into Donald Trump’s system for hiding his reported infidelities through clandestine payments. Tchen declined to answer whether Time’s Up would take cases against the president, but Martin was more direct when asked if Trump would fit the profile of a target of a complaint. “Well, he is a high-profile, prominent harasser, ” Martin said. “Arguably. Allegedly.”
Last year, before the Weinstein revelations, a former Uber employee named Susan Fowler galvanized an awakening for women in Silicon Valley by detailing the harassment and misconduct she witnessed at the rideshare company. While Fowler’s attempts to bring bad behavior to light while she was at Uber went unheeded, going public afterward had a ripple effect. One of many examples: Three women in the startup world began BetterBrave, a nonprofit dedicated to providing resources for people who face workplace misconduct, after they read Fowler’s story. BetterBrave is now listed prominently on Time’s Up’s website as a trusted resource.
“We’re really excited about all the potential that the Time’s Up initiative has to bring about change,” BetterBrave cofounder Tammy Cho told me. “We’re looking forward to them delivering on their promises, especially regarding providing subsidized legal help for employees.”
Cho noted how frequently employees need outside help when they deal with workplace harassment. “Of all the individuals that have reached out to us so far, 85 percent have experienced retaliation from their employer after reporting an incident,” Cho said. “Ideally, companies would reevaluate their policies and do the right thing. Until we reach that point, we need to keep companies accountable for their actions, and one of the most powerful ways we can do that is to keep them accountable through law.”
Time’s Up will, ideally, help employees square off in a fairer fight, although both Tchen and Martin recognize that, in some cases, policy changes will be necessary to help every kind of worker have a fighting chance.
“Our economy is changing, the nature of work is changing, and we do need to start to take a look at our public policy to make sure it keeps up,” Tchen said. “We’re in a moment right now where, to be perfectly frank, we’re not going to get big legislative change. Certainly not through this Congress.”
While Tchen is doubtful about short-term legislative progress, she is open-minded about working with unlikely allies. As a guest on a Politico podcast last year, she said she would not rule out working with Ivanka Trump, who has been appointed as a vague ambassador for women’s issues in the Trump White House. I asked Tchen if she still felt the same way.
“We need things like paid leave,” she said. “We are only one of two countries in the world that does not have a paid maternity leave policy, and that’s not only not good for working families, it is not good for American competitiveness in a global economy.”
“I’ll work with anybody who is willing to step up on those issues,” she concluded.
Tchen might find eager collaborators among Academy Awards attendees, but the ceremony itself is unlikely to be a “de facto rally” for Time’s Up, which is how The New York Times described the Golden Globes. The people planning the Oscars aren’t keen to see a particularly issue-driven show. “We certainly want to honor and respect Time’s Up and allow that message to be heard,” ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey told the Times. “But we’re trying to make it more planned than spur of the moment — it has its moment and then doesn’t feel like it overshadows the artists and films being honored.”
While there’s no plan for a black gown redux at the Oscars for Time’s Up, Tchen is intent to keep the organization’s momentum up. “There’s certainly an intent to keep it in the limelight. I don’t know what the specific plans will be, but everyone who’s involved in Time’s Up is really in it for the long haul,” she said. “I really give a lot of credit to the women in Hollywood who have used their celebrity and the platform that they have to speak out about long-term change, and they have said they’re in it for the long haul.”
As she begins the often-lengthy process of getting women into court, Tchen takes satisfaction from looking at the progress the organization has already made. “I can’t overemphasize enough how important it is just to get them lawyers,” she said. “In the past, folks who would not have had a lawyer would probably just have had to suffer in silence.”