Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher Calls for Use of Subpoenas to Give Victims the Freedom to Speak About Workplace Abuse

For immediate release:

SACRAMENTO  – (April 18, 2018) – California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) has asked the Assembly Speaker’s Office to issue subpoenas that would enable victims of workplace abuse to speak openly about their cases without violating the terms of their arbitration settlements.

She made the announcement at a press conference Wednesday to discuss her bill, AB 3080, which will help victims of sexual harassment seek justice by prohibiting California employers from requiring prospective hires to sign one-sided arbitration agreements that often keep secret the details of an employer’s misbehavior. AB 3080 has been named a Women’s Caucus Priority Bill.

She was joined at Wednesday’s press conference by several advocates for the bill, including Susan Fowler, the former Uber executive who blew the whistle on a culture of sexual harassment at the company, leading to the firing of Uber’s CEO and several other top executives.

“Nobody should be forced to sign away their rights as a condition of taking a job,” Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher said. “Countless people don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what job to take. They’re just trying to make ends meet. That’s why these forced arbitration agreements are so exploitive.”

Forced arbitration agreements have become a common tool of employers who seek to prevent employees from filing a lawsuit or, in instances of sexual harassment, filing a complaint with the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Instead, employees who sign these agreements are forced to go through the arbitration process with any sexual-harassment complaint.

A 2015 report by the California Labor Federation described this process as “a rigged system…in which an employer pays for its own arbitrators who then hear disputes in private. As you might imagine, this process rarely results in justice for an exploited worker.” Workers often don’t even realize what they’re signing when they enter into these contracts as a condition of employment.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher has asked Speaker Rendon to issue a subpoena allowing a woman who worked for a Bay Area start-up to testify before the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee about her experience at the company. If the Speaker grants the request, this would the first time in at least a decade that the Legislature has subpoenaed a witness to testify.

In forced arbitration, any settlements often require the victim to refrain from discussing the case publicly. In a workplace with a culture of sexual harassment, these arbitration agreements are particularly toxic, enabling the abusive behavior to continue unchecked.

AB 3080 would prohibit employers requiring their new hires to sign these agreements as a condition of getting the job, continuing in the job, or receiving an employment-related benefit. Employers would be forbidden from retaliating against any employee who declines to sign such an agreement. The bill also includes a “whistleblower” provision prohibiting employees, prospective employees or independent contractors from publicly disclosing any sexual harassment that they endured or witnessed.

“Working people have spent decades fighting for the strong laws California has in place to protect workers from workplace abuses,” said Caitlin Vega, California Labor Federation legislative director. “All worker protections are at risk due to the rise in forced arbitration. Thousands of women and low-wage workers are experiencing harassment, wage theft and other abuses on the job without any recourse for justice. AB 3080 ensures no worker is forced to waive her rights as a condition of getting a job. It’s time for the legislature to act to shatter the silence so many women are forced to endure because of this rigged system.”

New Economic Policy Institute research by Cornell professor Alexander J.S. Colvin shows that women and African Americans are more commonly subject to mandatory arbitration than other workers, and that the practice is especially widespread in California, Texas, and North Carolina. This report builds on his 2017 paper that found that that more than half of private-sector nonunion workers—or 60 million people—are subject to mandatory arbitration in employment contracts, which takes away their access to the court system that protects their legal employment rights.

“Working people deserve access to justice in our court system to hold employers accountable to the law, but mandatory arbitration locks them out of court and creates a barrier to pursuing justice,” said Marni von Wilpert, Associate Labor Counsel at the Economic Policy Institute. “We will only see a fair economy and a reduction in the widening gap of income inequality when workers have the right to engage in collective action in any forum to enforce their basic rights to be treated and paid fairly on the job.”

For more information on this issue or to schedule an interview with Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher, contact Alex Roth, communications director, at 619-228-3253.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher represents California’s 80th Assembly District, located in southern San Diego County, including the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista, and National City. She serves as Chair of the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Women in the Workplace, and Vice Chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus. For more information on Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher visit https://a80.asmdc.org/