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New Bills Addressing Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

New Bills Addressing Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Spurred by the national #MeToo movement, the Washington State Legislature passed several bills in the 2017-2018 legislative session related to gender equality and sexual harassment, thereby making some significant changes that local governments should be aware of.

Wage Equality

First, it’s no secret that a woman’s average salary is less than that of her male counterparts.   Indeed, April 10, 2018 — or Equal Pay Day— symbolizes how far into the year women, on average, must work to earn what men earned in the previous year. Recognizing this disparity, the Legislature updated Washington’s Equal Pay Act, a law that has not been modified since 1943.  The Equal Pay Act makes it a misdemeanor for an employer to discriminate in the payment of compensation based on gender for those employees similarly employed.

Under SSHB 1506, recent updates to the law include:

  • Redefining what it means to be “similarly employed,” to be “if the individuals work for the same employer, the performance of the job requires similar skill, effort, and responsibility, and the jobs are performed under similar working conditions”
  • Detailing the factors an employer can rely on when defending an Equal Pay Act claim, such as the difference in the employees’ education, training, experience, or a seniority or merit system.  

Nondisclosure and Employment Agreements

Second, a new bill (SSB 5996) prohibits employers from requiring an employee, as a condition of employment, to sign a nondisclosure agreement “that prevents the employee from disclosing sexual harassment or sexual assault occurring in the workplace, at work-related events coordinated by or through the employer, or between employees, or between an employer and an employee, off the employment premises.” (Other states, including California and New York are also considering similar bills.)

This bill specifically does not prohibit parties from entering into a settlement agreement where they agree to keep sexual harassment allegations confidential. SSB 5996 also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for disclosing or discussing sexual harassment or assault at the workplace or at work-related events.

A related bill, SSB 6313, declares void and unenforceable employment agreements requiring that: (1) sexual harassment claims be resolved using a confidential dispute resolution process; or (2) an employee waive their right to file sexual harassment complaints with the Washington State Human Rights Commission (HRC).

Model Policies

Finally, SSB 6471, noting that “the equal employment opportunity commission estimates that twenty-five to eighty-five percent of working women have experienced sexual harassment on the job,” declares it the intent of the legislature to encourage employers to adopt clear sexual harassment policies. To that end, the bill directs the HRC to, by January 1, 2019, develop model policies and best practices for keeping workplaces free from sexual harassment.

Many cities and counties are ahead of the curve and have already recognized the need for clear anti-harassment policies. For example, Spokane County recently passed a sexual harassment policy that outlines examples of sexual harassment, provides clear steps that employees must take if they experience or see incidents of sexual harassment, and details the county’s obligations to provide a work environment free from sexual harassment (including providing sexual harassment training for new hires, a refresher training every two years thereafter, and providing both an informal and formal complaint procedure).

Questions? Comments?

For more information on the topic of sexual harassment or to view other Washington local government policies, please visit MRSC’s Sexual Harassment webpage.

If you have thoughts about this blog post, please comment below or email me. If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.   

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Flannary Collins

Flannary Collins is the managing attorney for MRSC. She first joined MRSC as a legal consultant in August 2013 after serving as assistant city attorney for the city of Shoreline where she advised all city departments on a wide range of issues. Flannary became the managing attorney in 2018. In this role, she manages the MRSC legal team of five attorneys.

At MRSC, Flannary enjoys providing legal guidance to municipalities on all municipal issues, including the OPMA, PRA, and elected officials’ roles and responsibilities. She also serves on the WSAMA Board of Directors as Secretary-Treasurer.