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New sexual harassment laws make it simpler to come forward

Sexual harassment has been in the forefront of our national consciousness for the past year, and as a result California is starting to take actionable steps to make reporting easier for victims.

The state legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed, S.B. 1300 last month, which allows workers to sue for a single incident of harassment. This law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D), the bill's author, said this law ends a "free pass for unlawful behavior" in the workplace. It changes the legal standard by rejecting a 2000 federal appellate court ruling, which said harassment must be "severe or pervasive" to violate California law. The California Employment Lawyers Association and Equal Rights Advocates has stated this ruling has allowed perpetrators to get "one free grope" without facing liability over the past 18 years.

Speaking up about sexual harassment

It also prohibits non-disparagement or other agreements that would "deny the employee the right to disclose information about unlawful acts in the workplace, including, but not limited to, sexual harassment." That means an employer cannot compel you to stay silent about harassment. The law also prohibits employers from requiring their employees to release claims or rights in exchange for a raise or as a condition of employment.

However, the law's restrictions would not apply to "a negotiated settlement agreement to resolve an underlying claim . . . that has been filed by an employee in court, before an administrative agency, alternative dispute resolution forum, or through an employer's internal complaint process," as long as the agreement the employee enters under is voluntary and involves valuable consideration.

Harassment motivated by a person's sex

What often gets missed about sexual harassment, especially as high-profile cases of harassment and assault have dominated the news, is that the harassment does not have to be motivated by someone else's sexual interest in the victim. It simply means that the conduct of the harasser is motivated by the victim's sex.

Anyone experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace deserves the dignity of respectful and harassment-free employment. Hopefully these new laws will make their avenues for justice easier to navigate.

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