- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A group of bipartisan lawmakers announced legislation Wednesday to end forced arbitration of sexual harassment claims in the workplace, aiming to combat institutionalized sexual harassment within corporate culture.

If the bill passes, it would be illegal for employers to enforce these types of arbitration clauses.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, Illinois Democrat, said 60 million Americans are subject to arbitration through employment agreements.

“To those CEOs and the managers who think that every day at the workplace ought to be like an episode of ‘Mad Men,’ we have got a message for you: Stop it, and stop it now,” said Ms. Bustos, who also is supporting legislation in the House to end the taxpayer-funded hush fund for sexual harassment settlements in Congress.

Arbitration is used to settle disputes outside of courts. Some companies put such clauses into employment contracts to keep disputes confidential and resolve conflicts more quickly.

Ms. Bustos said she first came up with the idea for the legislation in February after reading about women who worked at Jared and Kay Jewelers and had tried to file a class-action lawsuit after senior executives allegedly had preyed on them.

“When they were hired, they filled out paperwork … that took away their right to sue,” Ms. Bustos said. “They were forced into a secret arbitration process and that meant their stories would never see the light of day.”

Signet Jewelers, the parent company of Jared and Kay Jewelers, said in a statement in February that the arbitration claims were over gender discrimination, pay and promotion — not sexual harassment.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said people in business want arbitration agreements because it is good for them. He called on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support the bill.

“I’m asking the business community — for your own sake, if nothing else — help us lead America to a better business environment and a better business environment is to be able to go to work and without having to put up with a bunch of crap,” Mr. Graham said.

A Chamber of Commerce spokesperson told The Washington Times that no senator has yet reached out about the legislation, but they plan to review it and are willing to work with anyone to combat harassment.

“The Chamber takes a back seat to no one in fighting against sexual harassment. The business community is on the front line in ensuring that all employees can come to work and do their job in an environment that is safe and free from harassment of any kind,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Catherine Rogers, a law professor at Penn State University, said that even if this legislation were to pass, businesses might not have to alter arbitration clauses in employment contracts. She said it would depend on how broadly or narrowly the bill is drafted.

“It means the sexual harassment claims would go to court, but the rest of the contract could be arbitrated,” said Ms. Rogers.

Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who left the network after allegations of sexual harassment, joined the lawmakers in support of the bill Wednesday, saying it would restore employees’ rights to a jury trial and not silence victims.

“Forced arbitration is the harasser’s best friend. It keeps harassment complaints and settlements secret. It allows harassers to stay in their jobs even as victims are pushed out or, many times, fired,” said Ms. Carlson.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, is backing the bill. She acknowledged that sexual harassment is a problem not only in Hollywood and the military, but also in politics.

“We have learned a very unfortunate truth that sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace are much more pervasive than anyone could have thought,” Ms. Gillibrand said, moments after calling for Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, to resign over several allegations of sexual misconduct.

The arbitration bill is being introduced roughly one week after the House voted to mandate anti-harassment training for congressional staff. The Senate did the same earlier in November.

The House Administration Committee is to meet Thursday to discuss potential regulations to govern the training.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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