As the #MeToo movement continues to illuminate the prevalence of harassment and abuse that many women face in the workplace, a tri-partisan group of Vermont legislators is trying to make it easier for victims to report bad behavior.
Cary Brown, the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, says her office often hears from women who say that sexual harassment has made it “difficult or even impossible” to do their jobs.
Like the welder who called in with this story:
“Her co-worker asked her to take a shower with her. Her boss touched her inappropriately. And when she complained, she was moved to a less desirable department. And ultimately she was offered six months pay if she would just leave voluntarily,” Brown says.
Brown also recalls a woman working in retail, whose boss asked for photos of her breasts:
“And when she complained, her manager refused to believe her, and she ended up losing her job,” Brown says.
Brown says for many of these women, the choice is stark: “Either put up with sexual harassment at work or leave your job.”
But Brown and Vermont lawmakers say new legislation introduced in the Vermont House of Representatives Thursday could finally offer some recourse.
“It is time that we strengthen our laws, our public education and resources so no Vermonter — no Vermonter — ever has to say, 'Me too,' again,” says House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski.
The bill is called “An act relating to the prevention of sexual harassment” and it includes numerous provisions that supporters say will lower barriers for reporting workplace harassment.
The legislation, for instance, would bar employers from making non-disclosure agreements a condition of employment, if those agreements preemptively prohibit someone from reporting sexual harassment.
The bill also gives the Attorney General’s Office new authority to investigate businesses, if an employee files a complaint. Under existing statute, the Attorney General’s Office can’t launch a probe without naming the worker who filed the complaint.
Julio Thompson, who works in the civil rights division at the attorney general’s office, says many women are “terrified” of lodging a complaint, for fear of reprisal or retaliation from their employer.
“We would have the authority without naming the individual and pursuing a charge, because maybe we don’t have enough evidence yet, and conducting an audit with the employer to find out whether there are other people there [experiencing problems with harassment], whether they actually have a policy,” Thompson says.
The legislation would also require employers who enter into legal settlements over sexual harassment charges to file notice of those settlements with the Attorney General’s Office.
The settlements would not be available for public viewing. But Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, says it will allow policymakers to track the scope of the problem.
“We have a moment in time here where we can start blowing this open and really, you know, talking more honestly about the extent of hostile work environments in Vermont,” Copeland Hanzas says.
The legislation has support from several business groups, including Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and Main Street Alliance.
The Vermont Chamber of Commerce says it supports the thrust of the legislation, and that it’s still reviewing the bill to make sure it doesn’t impose any undue burdens on businesses.
Disclosure: Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility is a VPR underwriter.