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Congress might finally fix the holes in workplace sexual harassment law
Despite working in very different jobs, from agricultural fields to private homes, factories and restaurants, the common experience that brings many women together is having survived workplace sexual harassment or violence.
There may finally be a commitment to end it, with the introduction of the "Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act." Introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass). and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), the legislation will add enforcement power to fight workplace mistreatment, violence and inequalities. Countless women suffer workplace sexual harassment and other forms of harassment in silence - often with no hope of securing justice or any kind of remedy for the harm against them.
Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement ignited the possibility for change and helped turn a spotlight on the widespread problem of workplace sexual harassment, including sexual assault. More than just drawing attention to the issue, it also helped raise public consciousness about the fact that many victims have no real possibility of ever winning justice for the harms committed against them because of the flawed federal law on the books.
The additional attention, coupled with the public disclosures of thousands of people employed across industries and sectors, proved enough to finally force political leaders to address the gaping holes in existing federal anti-discrimination law. This could make a real difference for women who face these experiences at work, women like Carmen, Adriana and Lisa.
Lisa's employer failed to take action after she reported harassment. Carmen's supervisors told her she was prettier when she was quiet after she reported harassment. Sexual harassment was both present and prevalent in job after job that Adriana took as contract worker.
Prior to last year, most people did not realize that independent contractor workers like Adriana, who she was sexually harassed by her boss, are not covered by Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination law. Few understood that the size of the employer dictates whether a worker is protected by this law. Unfairly, women working for employers with fewer than 15 employees, understood for the first time that federal law did not protect them from sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination.
Other women discovered that even if they are covered by the law and suffer some of the most egregious forms of harassment, like sexual assault and rape, their damages will be calculated - and limited - by the size of the employer, rather than the pain that they suffered.
The Be Heard Act is a critical step toward addressing some of the huge injustices that exist in our federal employment and civil rights law. It also provides an opportunity for survivors to seek justice without having to sign away their rights to discuss their cases, their settlements or their pain, like Lisa and other workers have done in the past just to resolve their cases. This law presents the opportunity to conduct much needed research and to develop educational and training tools that succeed in teaching workers their rights, while making all workplaces safe and equitable.
Workers have been crying out about this issue for decades, including farmworkers, domestic workers, hotel workers, janitors, restaurant workers and others. The question that remains is whether lawmakers are going to actually learn from the workers who have courageously come forward, like Lisa, Carmen and Adriana, to publicly bare their suffering with the hope that change is, in fact, on the horizon for all workers across our labor economy. It is upon Congress to decide whether they are actually serious about finally addressing and ending this serious problem once and for all.
Mónica Ramírez is the founder and President of Justice for Migrant Women, and also currently serves as the director of Gender Justice Campaigns for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Ramírez is a long-time advocate, organizer, and attorney fighting to eliminate gender-based violence and secure gender equity.
"Lisa" is a pseudonym used for the safety of the woman mentioned and due to confidentiality agreements made in previous court cases.