On March 3, 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the historic "Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021" or what was more commonly known as the #MeToo Bill, after the legislation had received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. This law prohibits companies from requiring their employees to arbitrate sexual assault and harassment claims, being enacted across all arbitration agreements regardless of the date signed. Victims of harassment and sexual assault now have a means of making their cases public, as well as pursuing civil lawsuits.
Tarana Burke, an advocate for women, first coined the term "Me Too" in 2006 to help other women know that they are not alone in their struggles against sexual assault and harassment. "Tarana has used her platform to share her long standing belief that healing is not a destination, but a journey. This philosophy has inspired millions of survivors who previously had to live in isolation to deal with the pain, shame and trauma of their experience", the Me Too Movement organization states.
The phrase was reintroduced in 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano, as a hashtag in order to connect with more people across social media and help the sharing of stories by men and women. People began sharing their stories across multiple platforms, using the phrase "#MeToo". The movement, facilitated by Burke's original grassroots campaign, began sparking empowering conversations and allowed survivors to feel encouraged to share their stories. This helped to begin to shine a light on systems that encouraged abuse.
An arbitration agreement is a contract agreement between an employer and an employee, in which an employee gives up their right to sue the employer through the court system once the contract is signed. Arbitration clauses require would-be plaintiffs to pursue lawsuits via private arbitration rather than in civil court. This makes it difficult for employees to seek redress, allows companies to hide widespread sexual harassment, and oftentimes, let's the perpetrator not be held accountable. Agatha Cole, an attorney with Pollock Cohen LLP in New York City, states, "The employer or company is basically saying, 'We may very well harm you in the future … but if you want to be employed or do business with us, you'll have to agree not to sue us".
Arbitration agreements can be put in place for work related issues, including breach of contract, wrongful termination, and previously, sexual harassment claims. Instead of going to the court system, employees that sign these agreements are required to take their complaints to a third-party out of the public eye.
When these agreements are presented to employees, it is very unlikely that an employee will bat an eye. This is because nobody typically goes into a job opportunity thinking issues such as those will arise. Even if that thought does cross their mind, they may not be fully aware of what an arbitrage agreement means for them. Arbitration agreements may have strict stipulations or limit the amount of time an employee has to present a complaint. When a complaint arises, an employee must take that complaint to a private third-party. There, the arbitrator may not have full investigative authority that a court system has, making it difficult to provide justice. Once a decision is made by an arbitrator, it cannot be appealed.
Employees are now granted the right to choose if they want to arbitrate harassment complaints against their employer and are not required under law. This provides the employees with more control over how they want to handle their unique situation and gives them the power to choose whether or not to go public.
With the passing of the #MeToo Bill, there is now an opportunity for victims to go public with their claims, as well as publicly voice their concerns and receive support. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, regarded the bill as, “...one of the most significant workplace reforms in American history". Previously, arbitration agreements reinforced perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, by keeping the matters behind closed doors. Now instead, the actions of those perpetrators can be brought to light. Companies will now need to put more recognition into workplace sexual harassment and assault in order to better protect their employees. Now that allegations and claims could result in public lawsuits, there is much more at stake for a company. This should prompt more companies and business owners to take action to change current policies, as well as resources available to employees.
Employers may be left scrambling to update their agreements, contracts, and present a plan of action for their employees. Since the law is now in place and a door has now been opened, employers can expect an uptick in reports and complaints. However, taking one step at a time can help you put the best interests of your employees at the forefront of your decision-making. Here are some ways to better prepare your company following the passing of the MeToo legislation.
AllVoices is an innovative and anonymous employee feedback platform, allowing employees to report harassment or workplace culture issues directly to company management. The system inside the platform collects employee submissions inside an encrypted dashboard that is presented as patterns, trends, and insights. At AllVoices, our team is dedicated to improving the lives of those who utilize our technology, providing our clients with effective means of mitigating issues and enhancing workplace culture. AllVoices enables employees to feel empowered, as well as heard, and provides company owners with the information they need to make decisions that put the welfare of their employees at the forefront.