Democrats on Tuesday introduced a groundbreaking bill meant to address workplace harassment, a year and a half after allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein drew widespread attention to these issues.
The name of the bill isn’t the catchiest, but The Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace Act, or Be Heard, covers a wide range of issues, including not only sexual harassment, but racial discrimination, age discrimination, and bias against LGBTQ workers.
Critically, the bill would extend civil rights protections to vulnerable low-wage workers ― including domestic workers, part-timers, interns, and contract workers ― whose stories tend to go unheard next to the more high-profile stories of sexual misconduct that attract media attention.
“Workplace harassment has caused fear and dread for so many hardworking men and women who are simply trying to make a living,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a co-lead on the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.). “I’m acutely aware of the powerlessness many workers feel,” said Pressley, referencing her time working in a hotel to support her family.
The bill is co-sponsored by 18 Senate Democrats including many of the major 2020 candidates ― Kamala Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the House, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), whose district was rocked by the Michigan State sex abuse scandal.
The bill would put an end to mandatory arbitration agreements and certain kinds of nondisclosure agreements, which serve to silence workers. It would eliminate the tipped minimum wage. Those in the service industry making just $2.13 an hour (the current tipped minimum) are particularly vulnerable to harassment from customers in order to simply earn a living.
The legislation would strengthen existing federal laws on discrimination and harassment by increasing the amount of time workers have to file federal lawsuits from less than a year to four years after the incident occurs. It would also offer more specific guidelines for what counts as harassment. Currently, certain hostile actions that would seem like harassment ― a boss grabbing a breast, an African American worker who finds a noose on his desk ― have failed to meet the threshold for harassment in some courts.
At a press conference Tuesday introducing the bill, some workers wept as they shared stories of horrifying mistreatment.
“He would say I was prettier when I was quiet and had to keep my mouth shut about what was happening,” said one factory worker, describing a situation she faced at work. “He said as a worker no one would believe me.”
Though other pieces of legislation have been proposed over the past 18 months to pick off specific areas of sex harassment and discrimination, this bill goes deeper, covering many of the systemic issues that hold workers back from seeking justice.
“It is definitely the first comprehensive legislation addressing workplace harassment since Me Too,” said Maya Raghu, Director of Workplace Equality at the National Women’s Law Center and one of more than 30 civil rights, labor and women’s groups, including the ACLU, NAACP, and Time’s Up, that are backing the legislation,
Raghu said one of the most significant parts of the bill is that it extends civil rights protections to workers who are the most vulnerable to harassment ― part-time employees, so-called gig workers and, even, interns, who currently can’t file federal discrimination claims.
The bill is a longshot to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, though some aspects of it do have bipartisan support, including ending nondisclosure agreements, Vox’s Anna North points out. Measures lifting wages and increasing employer liabilities would be a tougher lift.
Advocates say the legislation is an important step in addressing well-known gaps in civil rights laws, and also is a blueprint for legislative efforts in the states.
“These are longstanding issues that survivors and advocates and worker justice folks have talked about for years, they’ve taken huge risks to come forward and tell their stories, and Congress has been pretty silent that whole time,” said Rahgu.
This bill is a long awaited response to those calls to action.
“Even if it doesn’t get passed, that’s only one piece of it. You have to put the vision out there,” she said. ”You have to say this is what we need.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that Rep. Ayanna Pressley introduced the Be Heard bill. The bill was introduced by Rep. Katherine Clark, along with Sen. Patty Murray.