Harassment and discrimination have no place in the workplace

As a female African-American legislator, I know firsthand what it is like to face discrimination and that is why I am committed to finding legislative solutions to ending harassment in the workplace. In order to raise awareness, I called for a Democratic Caucus Public Policy hearing to be held on “The Quest for a Non-Toxic Workplace: Stopping Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct” this month in Lansdowne. At the hearing, several state representatives and I came together from across the commonwealth to hear expert testimony about the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the challenges of enforcing it, and proposed solutions to ending this scourge.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act prohibits unlawful discrimination in employment, housing and places of public accommodation. Sexual harassment is one form of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Yet, sexual and other forms of harassment are widely prevalent in our workplaces.

This is unacceptable.

Morgan Williams, assistant chief counsel, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, cited a poll in which 81 percent of women claim to have been sexually harassed, with 38 percent reporting harassment at work. Williams stated, “In FY 2017, sexual harassment claims comprised nearly one-quarter of federal harassment complaints.”

Yet, the majority of victims do not file complaints. A 2015 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report found that only about 30 percent of employees who were harassed reported the conduct internally, and only an estimated 6 to 13 percent of employees filed an informal complaint. Instead of filing a complaint, the victim tries to avoid the abuser, downplays the gravity of the situation or endures the behavior.

Victims have a very good reason for not coming forward: 75 percent of those who have reported harassment face some form of professional retaliation. According to Williams, the PHRC reported that 27 percent of the complaints filed during fiscal year 2016-17 were retaliation complaints.

In her testimony, Williams said that the PHRC is limited in addressing workplace harassment because it cannot require the employer to compensate victims for embarrassment, humiliation or emotional distress in the employment setting.

In response, employee advocate and attorney Harold M. Goldner proposed the two solutions. The first is that the PHRA should provide for punitive damages. Today, employers protect themselves with Employment Liability Insurance, which allows them to distance themselves from harassment cases. Employers should be held accountable for allowing a culture in which harassers thrive. Goldner believes that an employer should not be able to insure against punitive damages so the risk of such damages would “keep it personal” for the employer.

Goldner’s second proposal would be to expand the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act to private employers, which currently only applies to public employers. Expanding the law would address the situation by allowing bystanders to speak up where there is a serial harasser at work which management fails or refuses to address.

As HR departments are seen by victims as having multiple conflicts of interest, mediator Stephanie Klein suggested that third-party mediators can be effective in lower level harassment cases that are neither criminally nor civilly actionable and do not involve sexual assault or contact.

People deserve to work in a place free of harassment — either of themselves or of their co-workers — so they can feel safe and be fully productive. They deserve to have their performance judged on the quality of their work, not their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or age.

These proposed reforms would make it easier for victims of discrimination and harassment to get the justice they deserve.

Pennsylvania House Democrats have long fought for equality in the workplace through the removal of institutional barriers that have impeded women and minority groups.

In this legislative session, there is also meaningful legislation proposed by a number of legislators to rid our workplaces of harassment, including my bill to extend the amount of time a person has to file discrimination complaints with the PHRC. Under the bill, complainants also would have the right to a trial by jury and the ability to collect punitive damages and attorney’s fees from the defendant.

Everyone deserves to feel safe and valued in the workplace. Let’s take another step together toward making that a reality for everyone.