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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Senate bills target workplace sexual harassment

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Ken, applauds alongside fellow senators at the Capitol Friday, June 30, 2017, in Olympia, Wash. Keiser is the sponsor of a package of bills cracking down on sexual misconduct in the workplace. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – During Melissa Taylor’s first job after college, a senior executive offered her and other female colleagues money to go to a strip club after they had gone out to dinner.

“He offered me, and these other women, the equivalent of 10 percent of my monthly salary to go to a strip club,” she told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee Wednesday. “I spent the rest of my four years at this company avoiding that executive and trying to avoid situations like that.”

The effort could have been better spent on her job, said Taylor, a Seattle resident and one of the women to testify in support of a package of bills cracking down on sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The bills, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, would require employers to adopt more anti-harassment policies and aid victims reporting sexual harassment.

In a later interview with The Spokesman-Review, Keiser said it is long past time to take action regarding workplace sexual misconduct.

“I’ve been looking at this issue, and been aware of this issue, and when I was younger (I) experienced this issue,” she said. “I’m just tired of not seeing real change in the workplace.”

One bill would require the Human Rights Commission to create model policies to prevent sexual assault or harassment in the workplace, which would be posted on the commission and Department of Labor and Industries websites.

The bill comes after several legislators were accused of sexual misconduct in 2017. Keiser, who has promised to push for public disclosure of complaints filed against lawmakers, said the bill would apply to the Legislature and other public agencies.

“I am sure we will not exempt ourselves,” she said.

The bill provides an anonymous reporting system for victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace, she said.

Barbara Baker, commissioner for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it would provide resources for directors who lack expertise in sexual misconduct policies.

Multiple allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the WDFW were revealed in 2017 after several news outlets filed public records requests.

Two other bills would support employees who make sexual misconduct complaints.

One would make any employment contract that says a worker doesn’t have the right to file a sexual misconduct complaint unenforceable. The other would prohibit nondisclosure agreements for sexual harassment or assault as a condition for employment, and ban employers from retaliating against employees who file complaints.

Katie Chamberlain, an attorney with the Washington Employment Lawyers Association, said the organization fully supports the intention of all three bills, but that the two that address employee complaints should include other forms of harassment, such as race or religion. This way, she said, employers could not use the new legislation as an excuse for nonsexual types of harassment.

The state also has to be careful not to make certain kinds of employment contracts unenforceable, she said, and hurt employees who rely on a contract to get paid.

Terri Lindeke, a workplace sexual harassment victim, spoke in favor of all three bills and said finding a voice to address sexual misconduct has not gotten easier in the years since she experienced it decades ago.

“It was unwanted, however, I had no tools to prevent it,” Lindeke, of Burien, said of the harassment she experienced. “Even though I was the victim, I feared losing my job.”

Now retired, Lindeke said her daughter faces the same sexual harassment she did.

“My own daughter is the victim of workplace sexual harassment,” she said. “We have an obligation to make workplaces safe environments that will foster dignity and acceptance.”