California workers could not be forced to sign an arbitration agreement, giving up their right to take complaints against their employer to court, under a bill currently moving through the Legislature.
Critics say these agreements, which many workers must sign as a condition of the job, silence vulnerable employees by pushing them into private negotiations with the companies they work for and allow bad behavior to fester behind a curtain of secrecy.
Assembly Bill 3080, which also prohibits employers from requiring nondisclosure agreements in cases of sexual misconduct, follows the emergence of the #MeToo movement last fall. That national discussion about workplace sexual harassment shook lose allegations against many prominent individuals whose behavior had been covered up with confidential settlements.
But California labor leaders have long pushed for an end to forced arbitration, which they contend is particularly harmful to low-wage workers. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat who is carrying AB 3080, said the same dynamics that enable sexual harassment allow for violations of other state protections on discrimination, pay equality and wage theft.
"When there's that power imbalance, it also results in a variety of things," she said. "These laws are worthless when they cannot be enforced in court or by state agency because an employer has forced their workers to sign away their rights in an arbitration agreement."
Business groups broadly oppose the bill, arguing that it would significantly raise their litigation costs, and the California Chamber of Commerce placed it on the organization's annual list of "job killers."
Among its prominent supporters is Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host who won a $20 million settlement in a sexual harassment suit against the head of the network and has since become an outspoken advocate. At a Capitol press conference on Wednesday, she called forced arbitration "a harasser's best friend" and "un-American."
"It allows harassers, unbelievably, to stay in their jobs, even as victims, simply for having the courage to come forward, are pushed out," she said. "And it also silences other victims who might have stepped forward if they had just known what else was going on inside their workplace."