Senate Labor and Commerce Committee members Senators Karen Keiser, D-Kent; Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill; and Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue. Photo by Taylor McAvoy

Senate Labor and Commerce Committee members Senators Karen Keiser, D-Kent; Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill; and Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue. Photo by Taylor McAvoy

Workplace bullying and sexual harassment bills go before lawmakers

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, legislators seek a culture shift.

Proposals before the state Legislature would grant new protections from sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.

The bills were crafted in response to the #MeToo movement, which became a national force following October reports alleging sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A flood of allegations against powerful men in a wide range of fields followed and now lawmakers in Washington state say they are trying to change workplace culture to ensure that people who are subjected to bullying or harassment feel empowered to report any abuse.

The effort comes as more Americans are becoming aware of sexual harassment in the workplace. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll in October 2017 found that 64 percent of respondents think it is a serious problem. The poll marks a significant increase from from 2011, when a similar poll found that 47 percent of respondents felt the same. The poll also found that three in 10 women received unwanted sexual advances from a coworker.

A Senate committee on Wednesday heard a package of workplace-focused bills intended to address the issue. The proposed laws would ban certain non-disclosure agreements, require any employee contract to preserve the right to file a sexual harassment complaint, and prohibit workplace bullying of any kind.

SB 5996, sponsored by Senator Karen Keiser, D-Kent, would prohibit an employer from requiring a nondisclosure agreement that would discourage reporting sexual harassment or sexual assault. The bill also provides that such a clause in an employment agreement would be void in court.

Under federal and Washington state law employers can require employees, as a condition of employment, to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits disclosure of certain company facts. This is meant to protect trade secrets and details that would harm the company, but lawmakers fear it could also chill speech about sexual harassment.

It is already unfair practice under the Washington Law Against Discrimination for an employer to retaliate against an employee for disclosing sexual harassment, but the law does not say an employee can still take action despite a nondisclosure agreement.

Another bill, SB 6068, sponsored by Senator David Frockt, D-Kenmore, specifies that nondisclosure agreements cannot be used against a victim in criminal or civil lawsuits and requires the court to ensure the victim’s privacy unless he or she consents to disclosure.

“There would be no ‘Me Too’ movement in this country if women were not allowed to complain and speak up if they need to,” Washington Employment Lawyers Association attorney Katie Chamberlain said.

While she supports the bill’s goals, Chamberlain said the bill should include a clause regarding arbitration agreements. Chamberlain said this can be problematic in employment contracts because someone might unknowingly sign away their right to sue in court if faced with sexual harassment.

SB 6313, also sponsored by Senator Keiser, would require any mandatory employment contract to preserve the right of the employee to file a sexual harassment or sexual assault complaint in court. This bill is attuned to Washington’s status as an at-will employment state where an employee or employer can end the job at any time, unless there is an employment contract.

Yet another bill sponsored by Keiser, SB 6471, creates a work group through the Human Rights Commission to develop a model of best practices around sexual harassment in the workplace.

These measures would change workplace culture, said Barbara Baker, commissioner for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where multiple sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations against management have recently come to light. A former manager is currently awaiting sentencing for a conviction on rape and burglary charges.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Baker said. “We have a real problem, people are finally talking about it, and this is a good start.”

A broader form of workplace harassment is addressed in SB 6435, sponsored by Senator Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver. Her bill, which targets bullying, defines an abusive work environment and provides narrower liability standards than that of the Washington Law Against Discrimination. She said the bill is important because it protects those employees who do not belong to one of the protected classes under the law against discrimination.

“Sometimes the conditions in the workplace are so egregious that we have to step in,” said Senator Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, who is sponsoring a similar bill, SB 5423.

Gary Namie, a social psychologist and founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, said that workplace bullying is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment and often victims feel more fearful to speak out.

He said sexual harassment has a legal protection already, but workplace bullying is not addressed by the current anti-discrimination law.

“This is a bill no good employer should fear,” he said.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@kentreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.kentreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Northwest

Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. FILE PHOTO
Former Maple Valley day care employee pleads not guilty to child sex offenses

25-year-old Federal Way man faces first-degree rape of a child and other charges

Courtesy Photo, Seattle Police
Auburn man, 18, charged in Seattle shooting death

Javonte W. Isadore-Danning, 29, died as a result of multiple gunshot wounds.

t
17-year-old found shooting Orbeez gel balls at Federal Way students

Federal Way Police are unaware of any connection between several cases involving the toy guns.

t
Renton community safety forum targets crime stats, domestic violence

Renton Police chief says when he first started it was rare to have a firearm incident on the street

Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times / Pool
Jeffrey Nelson at his trial May 16.
Jurors continue to hear testimony in murder case against Auburn officer

Jeffrey Nelson is the first officer in Washington to face a murder charge following the passage of I-940.

Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. FILE PHOTO
Maple Valley day care employee charged with sex offenses

Federal Way man was employed at Discovery Playtown

t
Man killed by sheriff’s deputies in Auburn identified

Multiple shots fired during May 24 eviction

t
Person dies in officer-involved shooting in Auburn

Incident occurred while police were serving a civil eviction order.

Screenshot
A video shows players on a baseball field in Auburn taking cover amid the sound of gunshots May 19.
Gunfire sends bystanders into flight on public property in Auburn | Video

Derek Jennings, one of the owners of New Level Baseball, said the gunfire erupted in the middle of practice

A Sound Transit fare ambassador checks with a light rail rider. COURTESY PHOTO, Sound Transit
Fare inspections at Sound Transit Link stations begin June 3

Passengers will need proof of payment within fare paid zones at boarding areas

Jeffrey Nelson at his trial May 16, 2024. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times / Pool)
Murder trial begins for Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson

First officer in Washington to face a murder charge following the passage of Initiative 940.