A new bill that expands protections for survivors of workplace harassment or discrimination passed through the state Senate this week and is on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
Senate Bill 331, also known as the “Silenced No More Act,” seeks to protect the rights of workers by prohibiting employers from using non-disclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out against all forms of harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
Under the legislation awaiting the governor’s signature, employers cannot use NDAs to settle employment and housing-related legal claims that involve unlawful harassment or discrimination.
In addition, the bill also prohibits employers from including terms in a severance agreement that would restrict a separated employee from discussing unlawful conduct in the workplace, giving former employees the opportunity to report unlawful practices without the threat of legal action.
The bill was authored by state Sen. Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, who previously championed the Stand Together Against Non-Disclosures Act, which was signed into law in 2018.
In response to the #MeToo movement, the passage of STAND banned nondisclosure agreements in cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sex discrimination. STAND highlighted the role secret settlements play in silencing workers from sharing harmful workplace practices and complaints.
The Silenced No More Act builds upon existing provisions in STAND to empower victims to come forward freely about inappropriate workplace behavior without the threat of being silenced by an NDA. The bill recognizes that secret settlements and NDAs play a role in perpetuating workplace discrimination, harassment and bias based on gender, race, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation and aims to preserve the rights of workers to speak freely about these unlawful practices.
“The name of the bill says it all, as no worker should ever be silenced from speaking out about their own experience of harassment or discrimination in the workplace,” Sen. Leyva said in a statement. “For far too long, these secret settlements and agreements have reinforced a culture of secrecy that prevents accountability, respect and justice.”
“Workers in California deserve better than being forced into agreements that protect perpetrators and continue to harm survivors and others around them in the workplace,” she continued. “I thank my legislative colleagues for their support of SB 331 and look forward to the day when workers are no longer forced to endure this deplorable behavior due to these clauses and agreements.”
The provisions in SB 331 will provide a voice to low-wage workers in particular, who could otherwise not afford a high-power attorney to negotiate the terms of an NDA, Elsa Granados, the executive director of Santa Barbara-based Standing Together to End Sexual Assault, told the News-Press Wednesday.
By removing barriers to reporting unlawful practices, the bill ensures that workers will not be silenced when discussing discrimination in the workplace, Ms. Granados added.
“I think that the bill gives survivors and all of us as a community, as a society a way to hold companies and their management accountable for their unlawful practices,” Ms. Granados said. “These NDAs have served to silence survivors about the inner workings of these companies’ unlawful practices, and this helps to expose all of that so that companies can fall in line with the law.”
In addition to the new protections, SB 331 also acknowledges intersectional discrimination, which occurs when a person faces discrimination based on more than one factor — gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc. The bill takes an “intersectional” view by prohibiting employers from forcing NDAs that prevent employees from talking about any kind of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, Ms. Granados said.
A recent case of discrimination at Pinterest revealed the need for this kind of provision in the workplace. According to the Washington Post, two black women claimed gender and race discrimination against their former employer, Pinterest, in the form of low wages and racist comments from their manager.
The women were able to resolve their case under STAND, but only for gender-based discrimination claims. Due to an NDA, the women were not able to speak to their experiences about race discrimination.
SB 331 is endorsed by the California Employment Lawyers Association, Earthseed and Equal Rights Advocates. And it gained support from various women’s rights, labor, legal social justice and equity groups.