OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - As lawmakers work on creating a task force meant to stamp out sexual harassment at the Washington Legislature, a Senate panel will consider bills meant to address such misconduct in all workplaces.
Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Des Moines has introduced three bills on the issue that are set to receive a public hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, of which she is chairwoman.
The bills include Senate Bill 5996, which prohibits nondisclosure agreements that prevent employees from disclosing sexual harassment or assault.
Another measure, Senate Bill 6313, would void any employment contract, including arbitration agreements, that don’t have terms protecting an employee’s rights to file sexual harassment or assault complaints with authorities.
The third bill, Senate Bill 6471, would direct the Human Rights Commission to create a work group - including representatives from the business community as well as advocates for those affected by sexual harassment - to develop model policies and best practices for employers and employees to keep workplaces safe from sexual harassment.
“We’ve all seen from the events of the past year that sexual harassment is a lot more prevalent than we have been aware of, sadly,” Keiser said. “It’s been a problem that’s been swept under the rug. The only way to correct problems is to bring them out into the light. That’s what these efforts are trying to do.”
Leaders in the House and Senate have been reviewing policies and procedures on how best to move forward on addressing sexual harassment, training and reporting procedures following a series of stories and allegations that have arisen out of the Washington state Capitol in recent months.
More than 200 women - including lobbyists and lawmakers - signed a letter in November calling for a culture change at the Capitol. The signers, which included a bipartisan group of more than 40 lawmakers, wrote that as “women serving and working in the legislative and political realm, we add our voices to the chorus of ‘enough.’”
Last week, the state House passed a resolution setting up a legislative task force on sexual harassment, and the Senate is expected to follow suit soon. Under the measure, the task force will include eight lawmakers representing the four political caucuses, four lobbyists and a representative from the offices of the secretary of the Senate and the chief clerk of the House.
The group will review and make recommendations regarding cultural changes in the legislative community, including adopting a code of conduct, as well as education and training on preventing sexual harassment.
Rebecca Johnson, a lobbyist who was involved with the November letter, said she was happy with the actions the Legislature has taken thus far, but added that the session is just the start of a long-term conversation surrounding sexual harassment.
“This is our best chance of really shifting the culture here and creating policies that work for everyone,” she said.
Keiser said that it’s important to use the momentum of the national conversation surrounding sexual harassment and assault to make meaningful changes.
“It’s important to change our laws, not just our attitudes,” she said.
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