Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher Bill to Help Victims of Workplace Sexual Harassment Wins Approval From Key Assembly Committee

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

SACRAMENTO  – (Tuesday, April 24, 2018) – California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) won approval from a key Assembly committee Tuesday for her bill to help victims of sexual harassment seek justice by prohibiting California employers from requiring prospective hires to sign one-sided arbitration agreements.

AB 3080, which has been named a Women’s Caucus Priority Bill, passed the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee by a vote of 7-2..

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 or other workplace-related complaint.

The Assembly took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing a witness to testify at today’s hearing, the first time the Assembly has issued such a subpoena since 2001. Tara Zoumer, who worked for a Bay Area start-up and was fired for refusing to sign an arbitration agreement, supports the bill but had been barred from speaking about her legal settlement because of a non-disclosure agreement. The subpoena gave her a legal mechanism to testify publicly despite the non-disclosure agreement.

“I’m proud of Tara for having the resolve to testify in front of a room full of strangers about her abusive work experience,” Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher said. “It’s unfortunate that it took an act of the Assembly to give her the freedom to talk about what happened to her.”

Zoumer testified Tuesday that she complained to her employer, WeWork, about wage theft and other abuses, at which point she and all other employees were ordered to sign arbitration agreements. She was fired when she refused. She later sued the company but settled under terms that included a non-disclosure agreement barring her from speaking publicly. The Assembly subpoena enabled her to bypass that non-disclosure clause.

During today’s hearing, she urged the Judiciary Committee to take action against these forced arbitration agreements, which she called a “privatized and silencing legal system.”

“We should not have to fear losing our jobs and our rights,” Zoumer said.

A 2015 report by the California Labor Federation described private arbitration 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.

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.

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.

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/