First Federal Legislation on Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Reintroduced in Congress: “No More Silence, No More Complacency”

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you work—everyone deserves to be treated fairly, respectfully and with dignity.

—Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), co-sponsor of the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act

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Seventy-one percent of women restaurant workers report being sexually harassed at least once during their time in the restaurant industry. Sexual harassment has been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially for women in the food service industry and other public-facing professions like hospitality and care work. (Artyom Geodakyan / TASS via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the first comprehensive federal legislation on workplace harassment and discrimination was reintroduced in Congress. The Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination—or BE HEARD in the Workplace—Act aims to create a safe and harassment-free workplace, expand protections, and help facilitate justice for workers nationwide. The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Marie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and in the House by Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.).

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you work—everyone deserves to be treated fairly, respectfully and with dignity,” said Murray.

The BE HEARD in the Workplace Act would:

  • extend the scope of current laws, including civil rights protections and anti-harassment laws, to include all workers, no matter the workplace’s size, as well as extend these laws to apply to interns, fellows, volunteers, trainees and independent contractors;
  • widen the definition of “sex discrimination” at work to include harassment and any form of discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • require nondiscrimination training;
  • extend the statute of limitations for complaints from 180 days to four years; and
  • mandate that the Census Bureau do further research on harassment in the workplace. 

“Even with the laws we have on the books and the #MeToo movement shedding light on this problem, it’s still way too easy for employers to get away with committing these offenses,” said Hirono.

To promote transparency and accountability, the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act would also stop pre-employment non-disclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration, which requires employees and customers to file complaints and resolve conflicts within the company, instead of in a court. Mandatory arbitration is used in 54 percent of the cases involving non-union employers in the private sector, and the system is disadvantageous to workers, who win only 1.6 percent of these cases on average. Rates of mandatory arbitration have increased since the onset of the pandemic.

Sexual harassment has also been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially for women in the food service industry and other public-facing professions like hospitality and care work. (See: Comments like, “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you.”) In fact, 71 percent of women restaurant workers report being sexually harassed at least once during their time in the restaurant industry, often by both customers and supervisors—according to an April report from One Fair Wage.

These workers—disproportionately women—are forced to withstand harassment because many rely heavily on tips, which make up their base income. Most restaurant servers and bartenders are not guaranteed the national minimum wage in four out of five U.S. states. Not surprisingly, tipped workers who receive a subminimum wage report experiencing sexual harassment at a rate significantly higher than their non-tipped counterparts, by a 75 to 52 percent margin.

Restaurant workers have also faced an undue burden in enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols: 58 percent of reported feeling hesitant to enforce safety protocols because they were concerned it would affect their tips. These fears were not unfounded either: 67 precent of workers reported receiving a lower tip after enforcing safety measures. 

“Women know all too well that workplace harassment is still commonplace in every industry and every type of job,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “The pandemic and economic uncertainty exacerbate vulnerability to abuse, especially among low-paid women of color who often must remain silent and endure the harassment to hold on to their jobs.”

The BE HEARD Act would eliminate the tipped minimum wage. Studies have shown that restaurant workers in states that have already eliminated the subminimum wage reported half the amount of harassment as workers who are still paid subminimum wage. 

“Today, we’re saying enough is enough: No more silence, no more complacency. Whether you’re an assistant, an actress, a waitress, or an executive, workplace harassment is unacceptable, and victims must have the ability to seek justice,” said Clark, assistant speaker of the House and the second highest-ranking woman in House leadership. “This is about justice and respect for every worker, and nothing less should be tolerated under the law.” 

A whopping 83 percent of voters agree the president and Congress should focus on ending sexual harassment at work, according to an NWLC poll from last year. With important reforms on transparency, civil protections and wages, the reintroduction of the BE HEARD Act is a huge step towards ensuring that all workers nationwide have a safe work environment free of discrimination and harassment.

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About

Meredith Abdelnour is an editorial fellow for Ms. magazine. She studies English and Environmental Studies at Tulane University and enjoys crossword puzzles.