New Legislation Aims for More Stringent Anti-Harassment Protections

 

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 11, 2019
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​A mechanic at a Washington state factory where Maria del Carmen Ruelas worked often blocked her path, claimed he planned to have sex with her and warned her not to tell anyone.

And no one would believe her if she did report him, he told her. 

"Sexual harassment is so common where I work that the supervisor will tell the new workers, the younger workers, if they want to have better positions, bigger positions [at the company], they need to have sexual relations with them," said Ruelas. She spoke on behalf of Justice for Migrant Women advocates during a press conference announcing Senate and House bills that would give workers more rights when bringing workplace-harassment suits and prohibit employers from telling them they can't speak publicly about it. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (Be HEARD) in the Workplace Act in the Senate on Tuesday. 

A companion bill is being introduced in the House, led by Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.; Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.; and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla. 

During the press conference, workers such as Adriana Cazorla recounted how they had been victims of workplace harassment.

Cazorla, now an advocate with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, recalled bosses mistreating her at the restaurants where she worked and in the offices and homes she cleaned. A former employer, she said, once asked her to clean his house naked, telling her he wanted to make sure she didn't steal anything. She refused. 

And Jennifer Glover, a self-described "tough chick," recalled the sexual and verbal assault, misogyny and discrimination she said she endured as a security guard at the U.S. Department of Energy's Nevada National Security Site. She suffered career repercussions when she reported the harassment—including having her hours significantly reduced, her firearms taken from her and eventual termination.

[SHRM members-only resource: Workplace Harassment Resources

Murray's bill is aimed at:

  • Investing in research about the economic impact of workplace harassment, and ensuring workers get more information and training about what constitutes harassment and what their rights are if they are harassed.

  • Strengthening civil rights protections for all workers, including independent contractors and interns. 

  • Providing protection against discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • Extending the statute of limitations for harassment lawsuits.

  • Providing grants to support legal assistance for workers with low incomes who bring sexual-harassment lawsuits. 

  • Lifting the cap on damages when workers win sexual-harassment lawsuits. 

  • Eliminating the tipped minimum wage. Murray and others say tipped workers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and discrimination by clients and supervisors.


Venorica Tucker, 70, is a restaurant worker who relies on tips to augment her minimum wage.

"It's unjust to depend on the general public to pay our wages," said Tucker, an advocate with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. The organization campaigns for higher wages and race and gender equity in the industry. "We have to put up with sexual harassment just to get a good tip," she said, adding that most tipped workers, like her, are women of color.

"No matter who you are or where you work—no matter whether you are the only woman on the board or a janitor or a farmworker, you should be treated fairly, respectfully and with dignity," Murray said. 

The legislation seeks to capture, on a federal level, the broader workplace protections that many states and cities have advanced, noted Jason Habinsky, a partner at Haynes and Boone law firm in the greater New York City area. He handles labor and employment matters for domestic and international businesses.

"The goal is to … reduce the differences from jurisdiction to jurisdiction," allowing employers and employees to better understand the scope of protections, wherever they are located, he said. Additional guidance and information, he said, would be valuable for employers looking to create and improve training and policies that target workplace discrimination and harassment.

Additionally, he said, Murray's bill "would provide employees with a greater awareness of their rights and a better road map for enforcing those rights and pursuing available remedies."

Nondiscrimination policies, he noted, must evolve with changes in the law and in the workplace. 

"It is critical for employers to recognize that having a policy alone is not enough. Employers must educate employees through interactive training on a regular basis to be certain that employees fully understand the applicable policies and their own rights and remedies."

Should Murray's bill or a comparable one pass, Habinsky said, "employers' human resources professionals should ensure that all applicable company policies and training content are compliant. Otherwise, appropriate modifications should be implemented. In addition, employers should ensure that all decision-makers are aware of the new requirements."

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