Congress Needs to Meaningfully Address Workplace Harassment and Discrimination

By Alexandra Trahan

For decades, survivors have demanded justice and accountability for sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet only recently, in the wake of the #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke, the years of silencing victims are slowly coming to the surface. Whether in government, hospitality, retail, big business, manufacturing plants, or Hollywood, it is clear that harassment knows no bounds.

Everyone deserves dignity and to feel safe and secure at work. Thankfully, Congress heard our calls. One year ago today, Congresswomen Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, Elissa Slotkin, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell introduced the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act, a transformative bill to empower survivors, strengthen our laws, and protect working people from harassment and discrimination on the job. On the anniversary of its introduction, we are reminded of all of the brave people who have shared their stories so that others never have one to share.

The BE HEARD in the Workplace Act is the first comprehensive federal proposal to provide protections against workplace harassment and discrimination for all working people, no matter where a person works or how they are employed. The BE HEARD Act removes barriers many survivors face when trying to access justice by extending the time to file a complaint, ensuring that the law’s protections reflect current understandings of unacceptable harassment at work, increasing access to legal services for survivors in low-wage jobs, and prohibiting forced arbitration of disputes. The bill also eliminates artificial caps on damage awards and allows survivors to access justice for the harm they have suffered. It also promotes prevention by eliminating the tipped minimum wage, prohibiting pre-disclosure nondisclosure agreements, and creating a new task force within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to study and develop actionable recommendations for preventing workplace harassment.

At a time when misinformation spreads like wildfire, it is important to remember the truth about sexual harassment. Survivors come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and all genders. Incidents can occur during the day or at night, with or without physical contact. Sexual harassment has nothing to do with the clothes a person wears, and still matters 20 years after the experience. Sexual harassment is not a compliment or a joke, and does not need to be repeated to qualify. It can happen while working at a restaurant or working in Congress. 

As a 19-year-old Black woman having worked in both of these spaces, I know firsthand the harms of being sexually harassed on the job. In the restaurant where I worked, because of the loud and open environment, men would frequently touch me on my lower back or my hip to get my attention. In a specific incident, a man pressed himself behind me to say that I looked good that day. Working on Capitol Hill only changed the approach. As an intern, it is not uncommon to feel like you have to do everything staff tells you. When I was asked by a junior staffer to join the staff for drinks in the office, I replied, “No thank you, I’m only 18.” He then stated, as he put his hand on my back, “Wow you’re a baby, but that’s okay. We can go somewhere other than the office if you want, so they don’t see you drinking.” As a Black woman, I felt that speaking out against these experiences could have caused more harm than good. Too often Black women are seen as the “Jezebel,” or the woman who is overly sexual and will “sleep their way to the top.” Just like sexual harassment myths, this stereotype prohibits many women from coming forward. 

Thankfully, the #MeToo movement is shining a bright light on survivor experiences. Survivors should not be ignored, disbelieved, and forced to accept harassment and assault as a reality. Survivor stories from celebrities – including Gabrielle Union, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Hyland, and Terry Crews – have highlighted the necessity for workplace harassment reform. Their #MeToo stories prompted people whose voices were silenced to find the courage to share their own #MeToo experience. The most important aspect emerging from the #MeToo movement is that harassment is intolerable and all survivors deserve to be heard.

The #MeToo movement brought sexual harassment concerns to the forefront of our minds, but now we need more – we need  protections. The BE HEARD Act will ensure lasting reform to eliminate harassment and discrimination for all working people. Changing the work culture and enacting reform will bring us one step closer to true equality.

I want to thank the courageous survivors who have told their stories. It is my hope that the BE HEARD Act will pass, and will significantly decrease the number of survivors who must come forward in the future.

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Alexandra Trahan is a spring 2020 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.