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Oregon Lawmakers Aim To Give Harassment Victims A Stronger Voice

<p>The American and Oregon state flags adorn a desk on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


The American and Oregon state flags adorn a desk on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

In a letter to Oregon lawmakers, a woman who only identifies herself as “anonymous victim 1” detailed the harassment she experienced from her boss and urged legislators to pass stronger workplace protections.  

In the letter, she described going to the man's home to learn about a computer system.

"I was the age of his two daughters; I assumed his wife and daughters would be home on the weekend," the woman wrote. 

Instead, her boss appeared in a bathrobe and pretended to be running late. He offered her a drink. She declined. When they sat down at a computer, he turned his chair toward hers and put his tongue in her mouth.

“I pushed him off and he stopped, thankfully,” she wrote to lawmakers. “Workplace harassment affected every aspect of my life because I was relying on this job to support myself. When you have to go to work and face abuse, it takes away the dignity and respect that we all have the right to feel in the workplace but also takes away the dignity in supporting yourself.”

The woman's letter was included in testimony for a bill state senators approved Monday, which supporters call The Oregon Workplace Fairness Act.

Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, said the goal of the legislation is to shift the power dynamic “to give employees a stronger voice when they are victims of discrimination and harassment.”

If enacted into law, the measure would largely prohibit employers from asking for non-disclosure agreements, which were used in high-profile harassment cases involving Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’ Reilly and Bill Cosby as a way to keep the extent of their behavior hidden. An aggrieved employee, however, could request a non-disclosure if it helped them.

The measure also extends the statute of limitations for reporting discrimination in the workplace from one year to five years. The bill directs both private and public employers to adopt written policies that give employees a clear route to report harassment, including identifying an individual who will be tasked with receiving reports. The measure also directs the state’s labor commission to provide a template employers can use to help create their own policies.

Finally, if an employee is terminated for engaging in workplace harassment, the employer could deny the person any severance package.

“We must make sure there is no longer a policy that is so tilted against victims that they feel like they can’t come forward,” Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, one of the sponsors on the bill, told his Senate colleagues on the floor. “We must end the blaming of victims. They are not the problem.” 

The measure passed the Oregon Senate on a 23-6 vote and heads to the House.

This legislative session, a new caucus was formed made up of victims of sexual harassment and violence. The group said they are supportive of the legislation. 

"The most invaluable outcome of our caucus has been our ability to discuss and share our experiences with sexual violence and harassment; when we are able to tell our stories, even if only to one another, we are reminded that we are not alone and our experiences are easier to bear," Laura Hanson, the chair of the caucus said in a statement.

The Oregon Commission for Women supported the legislation, citing evidence that shows women are predominantly the victims of harassment. Women of color are even more likely to be harassed. And women who work in low-wage industries are particularly vulnerable to harassment, Barbara Spencer, the chair of the commission wrote lawmakers.

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-The Dalles, voted against the measure, arguing it didn’t go far enough.

“It does nothing to help any victim that was abused a year ago. Or even five years ago. The Legislature provided a legal remedy for child molesters in the past but refused to do the same for women now,” Boquist wrote to explain his vote.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake is a political reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.