By Taylor McAvoy

By Taylor McAvoy

New laws targeting sexual harassment await governor’s pen

Four key bills targeting sexual harassment passed both chambers and were waiting to be signed by the Washington State governor before the end of session March. 8.

SB 6313, sponsored by Senator Karen Keiser, D-Kent, makes an employment contract void if it requires an employee to waive the right to pursue legal action if she or he faces discrimination in the workplace.

A similar bill, SB 5996, also sponsored by Keiser, makes an employment contract void if it requires an employee to waive the right to pursue legal action if she or he faces sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace. Both bills passed both chambers unanimously in February.

Another bill provides discrimination protections for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault and easily passed both chambers by wide margins. HB 2661, sponsored by Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, makes it unlawful for an employer to fire employee or discriminate in hiring based on victimization of sexual assault or domestic violence. It also mandates employers to provide reasonable safety accommodation if a victim requests it. The bill closes a loophole in the law and provides a way for survivors to seek legal remedy if discriminated against based on their status.

Lawmakers even ventured into the realm of gun rights as it relates to domestic violence passing SB 6298, sponsored by Senator Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, by wide margins in both chambers. The bill makes domestic violence harassment a crime for which someone can lose their rights to a firearm. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support because it is narrowly tailored to apply only to people convicted of serious domestic violence and harassment crimes.

This all comes in response to the national Me Too movement. Recently, a new movement emerged as the next step. The Time’s Up movement starts with a letter written to Hollywood actors by the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization comprised of current and former farmworker women.

“We want survivors of sexual harassment, everywhere, to be heard, to be believed, and to know that accountability is possible,” the letter states.

The letter also calls for survivors to have access to justice and support for the wrongdoing they endured, a significant increase of women in leadership roles, and equal pay in the face of systematic imbalance of power.

Washington State has taken its own steps to address equal pay. HB 1506, which modified the Equal Pay Act of 1943, passed both chambers of the legislature Thursday, March 1. The bill provides legal remedies for discrimination in wages and compensation and prohibits employers from requiring employees to not discuss wages with each other.

The Washington State legislature has faced criticism for sexual harassment this session.

The NW News Network, The News Tribune, and The Olympian interviewed eight women earlier this year who accused Washington State Representative David Sawyer, D-Tacoma of inappropriate behavior and in a some cases, harassment. Sawyer is currently prohibited from working with his staff during a House official review of his conduct.

The state legislature also faced a lawsuit by a multitude of newspapers in the state for not disclosing records about accusations of sexual harassment. That lawsuit lead to a Washington State Supreme Court ruling agreeing that lawmakers in the state are subject to public records. Lawmakers then introduced a bill, SB 6617, sponsored by Senator Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, that would essentially exempt themselves from the Public Records Act with few exceptions. Governor Jay Inslee vetoed the bill on March, 1.

Sexual assault and harassment allegations against management at the Department of Fish and Wildlife came to light in January. A former manager is awaiting sentencing for a conviction on rape and burglary charges. At the hearing in the Senate hearing in January for SB 6313 and SB 5992, Barbara Baker, commissioner for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said these measures would respond to sexual harassment in ways that change workplace culture.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Baker said at the hearing. “We have a real problem. People are finally talking about it, and this is a good start.”

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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