Google employees join lawmakers pushing bills to end forced arbitration

Google employees join lawmakers pushing bills to end forced arbitration
© Greg Nash

Several Google employees joined congressional Democrats on Thursday as they unveiled legislation to end forced arbitration, backing a worker-led push to eliminate a practice that critics argue disempowers employees.

The group of Democrats, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), announced the package of bills at a press conference, standing beside workers and citizens who say they have been harmed by forced arbitration clauses.

Six Google employees were among those in attendance at the press conference, including Tanuja Gupta, one of the workers who helped organize the protests last year against the company's handling of sexual harassment cases.

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Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host who sued former Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment in 2016, was also in attendance, along with workers who were fired from Chipotle after they raised concerns about working overtime and others with personal connections to the issue.

"One of the systems that is truly rigged against consumers and workers and the American people is our current system of forced arbitration," Blumenthal said at the press conference, adding the practice denies people their "basic right" to turn to the court when they feel they have been wronged.

Forced arbitration requires employees to resolve their disputes with the company behind closed doors, preventing them from taking concerns before a judge or jury.

The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act would end the use of forced arbitration in consumer, worker, civil rights and antitrust disputes, while the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act would end the use of forced arbitration in instances that involve sexual harassment.  

Democratic lawmakers are also planning to introduce bills that would end forced arbitration in employment disputes, nursing home agreements and the armed services, they announced.

"All Americans deserve their day in court," Nadler said. "We make a mockery of this principle when we allow individuals to be forced to take their claims to private arbitration."

Last year, amid a spike of activism by tech workers, a number of technology companies announced that they were ending their forced arbitration practices.

Google last week announced an end to the policy for its full-time employees as well as its temporary workers, contractors and vendors — though the company said it would still enter into contracts with companies that have forced arbitration clauses. The company will also allow class-action lawsuits, in which a group of people with similar complaints come together to sue a defendant.

Microsoft in 2017 became the first major tech company to eliminate forced arbitration in sexual harassment disputes, followed by ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft.

After Google employees staged a worldwide walkout by 20,000 employees over the company's handling of sexual abuse last year, the company ended the practice for sexual abuse cases, spurring similar changes at Ebay, Airbnb and Facebook.

"The tech industry has been rife with forced arbitration," Blumenthal told The Hill. "I'm encouraged that some of the leading companies are voluntarily changing their practices. Their leadership by example is very important and I commend them for changing. But we can't rely on everyone to do the right thing voluntarily and the consumers, employees, civil rights victims, deserve justice."

Many Silicon Valley companies still include forced arbitration clauses in their employment contracts, preventing employees from taking any concerns public. Netflix, Tesla, PayPal, Amgen, Cisco, HP, IBM, Verizon, and GE all still require mandatory arbitration, while Uber, Lyft, eBay and only waived mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment disputes.

"The time has come to end to forced arbitration," said Gupta, a member of the group "End Forced Arbitration Now" led by Google employees. "In the last two years, we’ve seen journalists and front-line engineers put tech companies in the spotlight, forcing changes around how we address discrimination and harassment in the workplace."

"We watched as some companies tried to create policies in a surgical fashion, carving only a narrow category of cases where justice might be received," she said. "But workers continued to beat the drum of intersectionality ... and slowly, some companies started to relent, rolling out blanket policies that eliminated forced arbitration."

The Supreme Court last year interpreted the Federal Arbitration Act to allow companies to settle employment disputes through individual arbitration. 

Lawmakers on Thursday said they hope to "reverse" the Supreme Court's decisions on the issue.

Blumenthal said he believes the bills can pass because the Democrats have the majority this year. 

"Victims of misconduct, whether it be from sexual assault, racial discrimination, employment violations or corporate abuse, deserve their day in court," Nadler said.