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Policy Initiatives to Better Combat Workplace Harassment and Violence

Written by Noreen Farrell

Sexual harassment and violence are rampant in the workplace and keep workers – many of whom are women – from achieving workplace equality and economic security.
With the rise of the #MeToo movement, public awareness has grown about the extent to which sexual harassment and discrimination harm working people who are simply trying to make a living. There is also a growing recognition that our current laws have failed to adequately protect workers from harassment and other abuse, and often prevent them from coming forward at all.

Advocates from around the country have mobilized and worked with legislators to pass new laws to better protect workers from sexual harassment and violence and to combat the barriers they face to achieving safe and equitable workplaces and vindicating their rights. Join us in advocating for laws with the following key components (and use these hashtags to find examples of these laws in the Policy Hub):

Cover Smaller Workplaces (#EmployerSize)

Federal law only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Some states, including California, Delaware, New York, and Maryland have eliminated the employee threshold requirement, so that all employees are protected against sexual harassment, regardless of the size of their employer.

Extend Legal Deadlines (#LegalDeadlinesHarassment)

Many workers, especially in low-wage industries, lack information about their rights and the applicable statute of limitations. Moreover, survivors often fail to come forward right away due to the trauma they have experienced. In response, some states have extended the time for filing sexual harassment and/or other discrimination claims. California and New York both recently extended the one-year filing deadline to three years under their respective state laws.

Protect Additional Types of Workers (#IndependentContractors)

In recognition of the changing nature of work, several states have expanded their laws against sexual harassment to protect not only employees, but also other types of workers including independent contractors (California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Vermont), volunteers (California), and interns (California, Delaware). California recently clarified that existing law prohibits sexual harassment by investors, directors, producers, legislators, and lobbyists.

Address the “Severe or Pervasive” Legal Standard (#LegalStandard)

California addressed the “severe or pervasive” legal standard applied to sexual harassment claims by providing legislative guidance to ensure it is applied consistently and appropriately by courts and not unduly restrictive. New York removed the “severe or pervasive” standard altogether.

Limit Forced Arbitration (#ForcedArbitration)

Forced arbitration deprives workers of the right to enforce their rights in court. As a result, many workers do not bring claims at all and those who do, prevail less often and generally receive lower recovery. Forced arbitration is particularly harmful in the context of sexual harassment because it is a private and often confidential proceeding, allowing employers to avoid public awareness and scrutiny. Seven states have passed laws limiting forced arbitration to ensure that employers cannot escape accountability including, most recently, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California. Some of these laws have been challenged in court.

Limit Non-Disclosure & Non-Disparagement Agreements (#NDA)

Non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements keep workers from speaking out about workplace abuses, thereby shielding employers from accountability and in some cases enabling repeat predators. Several states have responded by limiting or prohibiting non-disclosure agreements as a condition of settlement (for example, and/or non-disparagement agreements as a condition of employment (including most recently, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Virginia).

Prohibit “No Rehire” Provisions (#NoRehire)

“No rehire” clauses in settlement agreements restrict future employment opportunities for workers settling a sexual harassment or other type of employment dispute and can impose a substantial burden on a worker’s ability to stay in their chosen occupation simply for asserting their rights. They therefore also chill employees from reporting workplace misconduct for fear of lasting repercussions on their careers. In response, Oregon, Vermont and California have passed laws prohibiting these clauses for certain claims.

Require Training for Prevention (#Training)

Several states, including Delaware, New York and Illinois, have enacted new laws requiring employers to provide sexual harassment prevention training to ensure workers and supervisors understand their rights and obligations under the law. Other states, like California and Connecticut, strengthened existing law to cover more workplaces.

Demand One Fair Wage and an End to a Sub-Minimum Wage (#OneFairWage)

Under federal law and in 43 states, tipped workers are paid a separate, lower minimum wage that starts at $2.13 an hour— a rate that has not changed since 1991. Not only does this keep tipped workers, the majority of whom are women, struggling to make ends meet it contributes to the disproportionately high levels of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, as workers are forced to endure harassment in order to make the tips they need to support themselves and their families. Alaska, California, Montana, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have eliminated the sub-minimum wage and the fight continues to ensure workers in all states are paid one fair wage.

Industry-Specific Harassment Reforms (#IndustrySpecificHarassment)

Some states have enacted targeted laws to address harassment that is endemic to certain industries. For example, some states have passed hotel panic button bills, and others now have training requirements specifically tailored to industries where harassment levels are high, such as in construction and janitorial work. Learn more.