PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When the #MeToo movement was first exploding in October 2017, State Representative Teresa Tanzi spoke out about how the Rhode Island State House, like many workplaces, has seen its share of sexual harassment.
A commission was soon formed, of which Tanzi was the chairperson, and months later that commission has brought forward a package of bills aimed at combating sexual harassment.
“Time’s up,” Tanzi told the House Labor committee as the seven bills were heard Thursday night.
One of the bills would mandate sexual harassment training for Rhode Island employers with 50 or more employees, requiring training within three months of hire and refresher courses every two years.
“It’s important to have your employees trained to recognize it and intervene if possible,” Tanzi said in an interview Thursday.
Another bill would prohibit employers from requiring nondisclosure or non-disparagement agreements in the cases of civil rights or criminal complaints. Nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, have been reportedly used by multiple companies to keep sexual harassment settlements quiet, while keeping the alleged harasser on the payroll.
“No one can be forced, if this law passes, to remain silent and suffer quietly,” Tanzi said. “All these NDAs do is keep serial abusers from being outed.”
But business groups opposed both bills, calling the mandatory training “costly and disruptive,” and arguing that NDAs can benefit both sides.
“We’re just concerned that this language would actually squelch or chill settlement agreements,” said Lenette Forry with the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.
The Providence Chamber of Commerce and Rhode Island Business Coalition expressed similar concerns.
The bills were strongly supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
Gov. Gina Raimondo also submitted written testimony, applauding lawmakers for considering the proposals that she said “will help ensure that Rhode Islanders can enjoy safe public spaces and supportive working environments.”
The other bills on the table would make various changes to the law including expanding the definition of employee to include contractors, unpaid interns and volunteers for purposes of fair employment rules; developing age-appropriate sexual abuse and sexual awareness education; extending the timeframe to bring an action for unlawful employment practice from one to two years; and suspending the statute of limitations for discrimination or harassment lawsuits for one year while they are being investigated by the human rights commission.
The committee held all seven bills for further study.