The BE HEARD Act, a comprehensive bill meant to address and prevent workplace sexual harassment, was introduced in Congress on Tuesday by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and other co-sponsors.
The bill is intended to close loopholes within federal discrimination laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as to provide resources and assistance to employers in preventing workplace harassment. The proposed legislation would extend protection to workers at small businesses, independent contractors, interns, LGBTQ workers, and volunteers, who were originally excluded from the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill also eliminates the tipped minimum wage, which perpetuates harassment within the workplace by compelling workers to endure harassment in order to pay their bills. The current federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 an hour, causing workers to rely on tips to make up the difference. In addition, the bill authorizes research and data collection on workplace harassment as well as grants for legal assistance to low-income workers.
Furthermore, the BE HEARD Act addresses the serious issues within the court system when handling workplace harassment claims. Women seeking to sue their employers in federal court must first submit a formal complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a strict time frame of no later than 180 days after the alleged discrimination. The bill would extend the 180-day statue of limitations to 4 years. The bill also addresses the detrimental practice of nondisclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses within employee contracts that circumvent the justice system by taking legal disputes out of the courtroom and silencing victims from sharing their stories publicly.
The historic bill follows the allegations of high-profile men in Hollywood and the #MeToo movement which sparked discussions surrounding sexual violence and harassment as women around the world demonstrated solidarity with other survivors. The “Me Too” movement was originally founded by activist Tarana Burke nearly ten years ago in an attempt to unify people who have survived sexual assault, especially in underprivileged communities “where rape crisis centers and sexual assault workers weren’t going.” The sponsors of the bill understood that current laws fail domestic workers and those who do not get media attention.
“When we started work on the Be HEARD Act, we’d heard a lot about abuses of power in Hollywood and in Congress,” Sen. Patty Murray said. “What we wanted to do was shine a spotlight on workers who weren’t in those headlines.”
“I am thinking about the hotel workers I worked alongside when I was scraping money together to help my family,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley added. “I am thinking about the transgender men and women who face discrimination for living their truth. I am thinking of my mother Sandy and my daughter Cora — my past and this country’s future.”
Of the women who reported unwanted sexual advances at work, 80 percent said it constituted as sexual harassment and one-third say it constituted as sexual abuse. That means that 33 million U.S. women were sexually harassed and 14 million women were sexually abused at worked. 95 percent of women who have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work say that male harassers typically go unpunished.
Media Resources: Feminist Newswire 10/17/17; Bustle 4/9/19; Vox 4/9/19