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HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering legislation to bolster the state’s discrimination and sexual harassment laws.
Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Chambersburg and chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, on Tuesday held a hearing on harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace.
“We are in the midst of an extraordinary culture shift,” said Terry Framson, managing attorney with the Women’s Law Project. “The Me Too movement has unleashed an incredible number of disclosures and conversations about sexual harassment.”
Framson was one of several people to testify during a hearing that lasted nearly three hours.
“Most people suffer in silence,” said Donna Greco, policy director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. “Instead of reporting, most victims quit their jobs or alter their schedule or physical environment to avoid harassment.”
Up to 85 percent of women and 19 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, Greco said. Eighty-five percent of victims never file a formal legal charge and 70 percent never make a formal complaint with their employer.
The committee heard from people representing victim advocates, the legal community and lawmakers who have introduced legislation. According to their testimony, many victims harbor feelings of fear and shame over the harassment. Victims fear that no one will believe them or that they will face professional or peer retaliation or that their careers will be jeopardized.
“With the number of incidents of workplace harassment and sexual misconduct both in private sector and in Pennsylvania government, we believe this is an issue worth an in-depth study,” Kauffman said. “The hearing was held to give the committee members the opportunity to get a solid background on the issues surrounding workplace harassment and sexual misconduct.”
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a bipartisan issue that the “legislature takes very seriously,” he said. The committee will move deliberately.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found in January that state officials used $3.2 million in taxpayer money to pay legal fees and settlements to resolve more than two dozen sexual harassment complaints against government and public employees in the past eight years.
In early April Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Democrats unveiled a package of bills intended to strengthen the state’s protections against sexual harassment and discrimination.
Less than a week later, the House Republican Caucus answered with the call for a task force to investigate sexual and workplace harassment.
“It resembles the child protection task force created after the Sandusky scandal at PSU,” Kauffman said.
Several bills are in House committees — Labor and Industry, Judiciary and Education.
“In the weeks and months to come, the respective committees will have to review the legislation in their possession and determine which bills, if any, should be moved forward,” Kauffman said.
Kauffman said his committee will continue to discuss workplace harassment and “work to move substantive legislation” to the full House for consideration.
Several bills are in the House Labor and Industry Committee:
House Bill 2280, sponsored by Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Tobyhanna, would expand coverage under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to companies having at least one employee. The law currently applies only to employers having four or more employees. The state has about 153,000 companies with four or fewer employees, according to the 2015 Census.
“My legislation would protect everyone — 314,000 more workers, including full-time nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers, independent contractors and interns — from workplace harassment and abuse,” Madden said. “For far too long we have left these hardworking employees vulnerable and I plan to defend them.”
HB 2282, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia, would amend the human relations act to protect interns and to ensure employees and supervisors get training to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.
HB 2283, sponsored by Rep. Dom Costa, D-Pittsburgh, would amend the human relations act to update Employment Fair Practices notices so they include descriptions and examples of unlawful discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation. Workers will be able to more easily identify and report harassment and discrimination on the job, according to DeCosta.
HB 2284, sponsored by Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Philadelphia, would extend the amount of time employees have to file a complaint against an employer from 180 days to two years. It would also provide individuals with the right to a trial by jury as well as the recovery of punitive damages.
“Far too often, employees are afraid to speak up about crimes and violations in the workplace for fear of employer retaliation,” O’Brien said. “This allows sexual harassment, workplace harassment and discrimination to run amuck. My legislation would provide whistleblowers with the assurance they need to come forward in a timely manner and report inappropriate behavior.”
HB 2286 is similar to HB 2284.
House Resolutions 828 and 829, sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Camp Hill, call for studying potential inadequacies in the laws and policies dealing with harassment and sexual misconduct. A task force would review federal, state and local laws and report its recommendations to the General Assembly. The Joint State Government Commission also would study the frequency of harassment and sexual misconduct in the state government.
“It is important to examine an issue of this severity with extreme care, before we legislate,” Deloxier said.
HR 684, sponsored by Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilke Barre, also would create a task force to make recommendations to improve the reporting of and responses to sexual harassment and discrimination in public and private workplaces.
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