A New Year’s Resolution for Congress: Pass Workplace Harassment Reform

As 2018 winds to an end, the nation’s unprecedented reckoning with workplace harassment, particularly sexual harassment, continues, led by survivors’ demands for accountability. It has been over three decades since the Supreme Court first recognized workplace sexual harassment as illegal. But as the stories and data of this past year and years prior have reminded us, despite the longstanding prohibitions against harassment based on sex – as well as race, color, religion, national origin, age, and disability – millions of working people are still denied the right to earn a living with dignity and in safety.
For many individuals, particularly those in workplaces with large power disparities, the risks of coming forward are great and the barriers to redress are steep. Workers are often forced to endure harassment or assault in silence, prohibited by non-disclosure agreements or other confidentiality provisions in employment contracts and settlement agreements from sharing their experiences or reporting to enforcement authorities. Increasing numbers of workers are forced to give up their day in court and resolve claims through arbitration, where the facts, proceedings, and resolution are kept private. Workers often face other barriers to justice, including short statutes of limitations for filing claims, legal standards restrictively interpreted by courts, and limits on recovery that are tied to the size of the employer instead of the harm to the survivor. Other workers are left out from protections against workplace harassment altogether, such as those working at smaller workplaces, as well as independent contractors and those working in the gig economy (including many people working in agriculture, hospitality, and care work), unpaid interns, and others who work in nontraditional employment relationships.
Survivors of harassment and discrimination have never owed us their stories, but we want every survivor to know that we hear them – whether they choose to speak out publicly or not. Over the past year, advocates and survivors have been working tirelessly to change systemic barriers and culture through legislative reform, research,  know your rights education, and increased access to affordable legal services.
While states and cities have been busy introducing over 100 bills and changing their laws around workplace harassment, we have yet to see this level of activity or success at the federal level. Last week, Congress passed a bill to address harassment within its own workforce – a necessary and overdue reform. The bill was an important first step, but Congress must also enact meaningful change for the millions of workers across the country who continue to endure harassment with impunity. To date, Congress has only introduced, but not passed, legislation that would address harassment in the workforce at large.
That’s why NWLC recently joined over 50 civil, women’s and workers rights groups to release A Call for Legislative Action to Eliminate Workplace Harassment, which sets out principles and recommendations for legislative reform on critical issues. We hope the new Congress makes addressing workplace harassment a priority in the new year.
There are some encouraging signs that federal lawmakers are heeding the call. Today Senator Patty Murray, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) released an important report that documents the ongoing prevalence of workplace harassment, reviews data and risk factors, includes stories, and identifies critical gaps in federal civil rights law and workplace protections. The report concludes by echoing many of the recommendations for legal reform identified in the Call for Legislative Action.
Workers across the country can’t wait any longer. The time to act is now.