New Washington Laws Aim To Address Workplace Sexual Harassment And Gender Pay Gap

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee poses with state Sen. Karen Keiser at a bill signing ceremony on Wednesday.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee poses with state Sen. Karen Keiser at a bill signing ceremony on Wednesday. CREDIT: AUSTIN JENKINS/N3

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed several measures into law aimed at addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. They include a prohibition on non-disclosure agreements that silence victims of harassment or assault.

Separately, Inslee signed an update to the state’s Equal Pay Act that would further protect workers from discrimination and retaliation based on gender disparities in pay.

“The past practice we’ve seen over and over again is that when you have these secrecy clauses … it ends up that women sign the NDAs, they leave their jobs and the man or the perpetrator stays in the job and sometimes get promoted,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation.

Keiser said her goal is to end that pattern. Another new law she authored will require Washington’s Human Rights Commission to develop model policies around sexual harassment that employers can adopt as their own.

Keiser said the idea for that grew out of reporting public radio did last year with The News Tribune and The Olympian on a sexualized workplace culture in the upper ranks of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We took that situation and worked with individuals who were aware of what had happened and what should change in terms of culture of really toxic sexuality, and to change that culture is difficult,” Keiser said. “You don’t just do a two-hour training once a year.”

Recently, former Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Greg Schirato was sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping a fellow employee after an agency Christmas party in 2014.

The victim, who public radio is not naming because she is the victim of a sexual assault, has filed a notice to sue the state of Washington alleging she experienced a hostile and retaliatory work environment after filing a sexual harassment complaint against Schirato in January 2015 following the rape.

The Legislature’s focus on sexual harassment this year also grew out of the #MeToo social media movement. That was sparked after women in Hollywood began publicly accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault.

At the bill signing ceremony, Inslee said the state was leading the country on protecting women’s rights.

“That’s what we do in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

Besides the sexual harassment bills, Inslee signed measures Wednesday updating Washington’s equal pay law for women and requiring health insurance companies that cover maternity care to also cover abortion.

The workplace pay gap measure modifies the state’s Equal Pay Act by making several changes, including making it unacceptable for employers to retaliate against an employee for asking about their wages or the salary of other employees. It also provides additional protections under the existing law for employees whose professional opportunities are hindered because of their gender.

Under the new law, which takes effect in June, an employee who believes they are being paid less than another colleague who has the same experience and does the same work, based on gender, may file a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries, which can assess penalties against an employer.

Employers are not able to fire or otherwise retaliate against employees for filing a complaint. Additionally, employees can take civil action on issues related to career advancement, wage discussion, and retaliation provisions.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network. Information and reporting from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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