On April 9th, the “Be HEARD” act was introduced by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Katherine Clark, Senator Patty Murray, Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, and Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. This sweeping legislation, which stands for “Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination,” seeks to curb workplace sexual harassment and extend protections to vulnerable workers.
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Under current law, protection against employment discrimination only extends to workplaces with more than 15 employees. This means that workers for small businesses and positions that do not fall under the category of “employee,” such as independent contractors, interns, and volunteers, are not afforded the support of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “Be HEARD” strengthens and expands the contents of the Civil Rights Act for these people while clarifying protections for LGBTQ+ workers.
This bill also proposes measures that prevent vulnerability to workplace harassment in the first place. Policies such as mandatory arbitration and pre-employment non-disclosure agreements have long been mechanisms used by employers to silence victims and safeguard perpetrators of sexual harassment from legal jeopardy. These procedures, along with tipped minimum wage, will be eliminated under “Be HEARD.”
The “Be HEARD” act also seeks to expand resources for research into the economic impacts of workplace harassment. While retrospect accountability for employers is important, improving the current culture also requires understanding of how to prevent harassment. Proposals for data collection, policies, training, and guidance tailored to specific industries are included in this bill. There is also broadened support for victims in the form of increased timeframes for reporting harassment, grants for the legal fees, and increased investment in state-level resources for civil rights protection.
At a press conference for the introduction of the “Be HEARD” act, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said: “Our bill will put us one step closer to making toxic workplace harassment and discrimination a dark memory of the past… This is for the brave women of the Boston Fire Department, for the hotel workers I worked alongside when I was scrapping money together to help my family, for the transgender men and women who face discrimination for living their truth. This is for those workers who shared their stories and instead of justice, faced retaliation. Now is the time to push conversations and the policies so that those who have been suffering in silence feel seen and represented in our democracy.”
This legislation comes in response to the cultural reckoning of workplace harassment brought by the #MeToo movement. At the press conference for “Be HEARD,” the bill’s sponsors were joined by survivors, advocates, and leaders from the National Women’s Law Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union. It has also widely received support from a number of democratic leaders and 2020 presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren.
Tristyn Surprenant is working toward her B.A. in Communications and Media Studies with minors in Writing and Digital Media Production at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA. She works as a research assistant and a writing tutor, and serves as the co-chair of a campus club that promotes female body-positive activism. She hopes to someday work in broadcast journalism.