Dear Speaker Ryan,
The time to take real action to end sexual harassment in the workplace is right now and you have the power to make it happen.
I’m writing this open letter to ask you to do something real and something substantive by standing with Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate, with companies like Microsoft, and with the attorneys general from all 50 states, plus the five territories and the District of Columbia.
Since the launch of the #MeToo movement, we’ve seen tremendous energy and enthusiasm to change the way we, as a nation, address sexual harassment.
We’ve heard horror stories about how “hundreds” of women, who just wanted to earn a decent living at Jared and Kay Jewelers, were “routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed.”
We’ve heard about Charmaine Anderson, who worked hard to earn $3.95 an hour as a waitress at a Waffle House in Mississippi. Even though her boss texted her images “of his penis, then threaten[ed] her with a knife if she reported him,” the lawyer she spoke with advised her to drop the complaint because the deck was stacked against her in a way that she just couldn’t win.
And we’ve all heard about former Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson, who was prevented from suing Fox News after enduring years of systemic sexual harassment from abusers above her and enablers around her. Like all of the other women who made allegations of sexual harassment at Fox News, Gretchen couldn’t sue the network because a clause buried deep into the boilerplate, take-it-or-leave-it, language in her employment contract prevented her from doing so. That same clause, requiring mandatory arbitration for workplace complaints, also appeared in the contracts of the women at Jared and Kay Jewelers, Charmaine Anderson and approximately 60 million hardworking men and women across our nation.
While we know that most businesses take sexual harassment seriously and work to prevent it, mandatory arbitration affords bad actors the dual benefit of keeping negative stories out of the media and avoiding substantial payments to victims. That’s because the arbiters who handle claims all but work for the companies they are supposed to be judging impartially – after all, why would a company continue to use an arbiter who rules against them? This is probably why, by some estimates, complainants only win about one in five of their arbitration cases and, when they do win, they only get about 7 percent of the award that they might have won in a court. And when a complainant does win an arbitration case, if they didn’t already have a non-disclosure agreement in their employment contract, you can bet the settlement includes one.
That’s why, after nearly a year of working behind the scenes to line up bipartisan, bicameral support, I introduced the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017 at a press conference with my co-leads, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Elise Stefanik(R-N.Y.). We were also joined at our announcement by Gretchen Carlson, who spoke of her experience to the extent she’s legally allowed to.
Our legislation is straightforward and simple. All it would do is give victims of workplace sexual harassment or discrimination the choice to take their employer to court rather than submitting to a mandatory arbitration process.
Allowing victims of sexual harassment to have the choice to use the court system isn’t just common sense, it’s also the right thing to do.
And, because it’s so obviously the moral choice, our idea has gained tremendous momentum since we introduced it.
Just days after our news conference, Microsoft became the first major company in America to publicly support our bill. They also went one step further by refusing to wait for Washington and instead leading by example. In their announcement, Microsoft committed to ignore the forced arbitration clauses in the contracts of all 125,000 of their employees around the world in cases of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Two weeks ago, Florida’s Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi and North Carolina’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein sent you a letter, which was signed by every one of the attorneys general in the nation urging you to bring our legislation to the floor for a vote. This is the first time in nearly a decade there has been a letter signed by every Democratic and Republican attorney general.
Mr. Speaker, sexual harassment simply cannot exist without a veil of secrecy. Allowing serial sexual harassers to continue hiding in the shadows does nothing but silence survivors, put millions of women in the workplace at continued risk and enable abusers to continue climbing their career ladder with no repercussions.
Change isn’t easy, and there will be some who simply don’t want to take this step to protect women in the workplace because they’re afraid of how this could affect their bottom line. However, on this issue, there is a very clear right side and a wrong side of history.
You alone have the power to bring our bill to the floor for a vote.
I urge you to join us on the right side of history by taking real action right now.
Kind Personal Regards,
Rep. Cheri Bustos
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos represents Illinois’ 17th Congressional District, which includes Peoria, the Quad-Cities and Rockford. She is the only Midwesterner in elected Democratic House Leadership as a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.