Congress approved legislation guaranteeing that people who experience sexual harassment at work can seek recourse in the courts, a milestone for the #MeToo movement that prompted a reckoning on the way sexual misconduct claims are handled, the Associated Press reports. The measure bars employment contracts from forcing people to settle sexual assault or harassment cases through arbitration instead of court, a process that often benefits employers and keeps misconduct allegations from becoming public. The bill is retroactive, nullifying language in contracts nationwide and opening the door for people to take legal action. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called it “one of the most significant workplace reforms in American history.”
The legislation had uncommonly broad, bipartisan support. That allowed the bill to be passed in the Senate by unanimous consent — a procedure almost never used for significant legislation, especially one affecting tens of millions of Americans. The House passed the bill this week in a 335- 97 vote. Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who accused the late network CEO Roger Ailes of making unwanted advances and harming her career when she rejected him, backed the legislation. Carlson said she could never have imagined, after coming forward with her allegations five years ago, that it would lead to a change in the law that both Democrats and Republicans would get behind. An estimated 60 million workers have clauses in their employment contracts forcing them to settle any allegations of sexual misconduct in private arbitration proceedings, rather than in court. The widespread practice has come under fire in the wake of the #MeToo movement for forcing employees to seek recourse without a jury, a chance to appeal a decision or the sunlight of a public court process. Critics say the secretive nature of binding arbitration protects companies and perpetrators and allows corporations to avoid changing policies or removing serial abusers.