Sacramento Bee: California talks a good #MeToo game. Now how about action for women in the workplace?

June 18, 2018

What will it take to stop sexual harassment in the workplace? Last week, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, suggested an answer: cultural change.

Proposing a radical overhaul in the way the frat house that is the Capitol handles claims of sexual misconduct, Friedman noted that internal policies don’t do much if disrespect and abuses of power are informally winked at. “Culture eats policy for breakfast,” she said.

Some two dozen #MeToo bills are still in the pipeline, addressing the many institutional dodges and loopholes that still enable workplace gropers, creepers and bullies. To truly effect change, state lawmakers must enact a broad range.

She’s right, which is why the dizzying array of #MeToo bills pending now in California must be addressed in the same way state lawmakers – led by Friedman and Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles – want to fix the Assembly and Senate: swiftly, boldly and comprehensively.

California has talked a good game in the aftermath of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandals. But for all the raging and purging, the uprising against sexual harassment hasn’t changed much state law yet.

Gov. Jerry Brown set aside $1.5 million in the state budget to track sexual harassment and discrimination complaints across state departments, the result of a Sacramento Bee exposé on harassers in state government hopping from one state job to another. And lawmakers passed a whistleblower bill by Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez protecting Capitol staffers.

But some two dozen #MeToo bills are still in the pipeline, addressing the many institutional dodges and loopholes that still enable workplace gropers, creepers and bullies. To truly effect change, state lawmakers must enact a broad range of large and granular solutions. These deserve serious consideration in coming weeks:

– SB 1300: Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson’s bill is a veritable honey-do list of sexual harassment cleanups. It would broaden sexual harassment training requirements to employees in all but the smallest workplaces, clarify standards for legal claims of sexual harassment and outlaw the kind of tactics often used by serial harassers to silence women, such as conditioning employment and bonuses on nondisparagement agreements and broad waivers of claims.

– AB 1870: Carried by a bipartisan group of female lawmakers, this would extend the current one-year statute of limitations on claims of sexual harassment and discrimination to three years, like fraud claims.

– SB 1038: Sen. Connie Leyva’s bill would close another legal loophole, making it clear that individuals can be held personally liable for retaliation against an employee who has complained of harassment.

– SB 224: This would make it clear that state civil rights laws outlawing harassment in business relationships (lenders and borrowers, for instance) also extend to investors, lobbyists, elected officials and – say cheese, Harvey – directors and producers.

– AB 3080: Carried by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and touted by Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor, this would outlaw mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of hiring, one of the biggest obstacles to addressing workplace discrimination and harassment because it forces women to sign away their right to sue publicly, in court, if they are harassed.

– SB 820: A companion to AB 3080, this would discourage the kind of secret settlements that enabled Weinstein’s predation, making it illegal for a sexual harasser to condition a settlement with the victim on confidentiality.

There are more, including proposals to put more women on state boards and to give hotel maids panic buttons, but you get the picture. This isn’t a one-and-done fix.

Slowly and then all at once – that’s how cultural change usually happens. For now, state lawmakers should advance these bills.