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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand urges end to forced arbitration clauses

Sen. Kristen Gillibrand addresses a group of Long

Sen. Kristen Gillibrand addresses a group of Long Island business leaders in Melville on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand encouraged Long Island business leaders Friday to abandon forced arbitration clauses that silence workers who have faced workplace sexual harassment and assault.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) last month introduced the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017” with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). A companion in the House is co-sponsored by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro).

The bill would bar employers from including arbitration clauses preventing workers from filing suit against their harassers in labor contracts and allow accusers to speak publicly about their claims.

Gillibrand said at a Long Island Association forum in Melville that arbitration clauses force accusers to remain silent and often drive employees to leave their jobs for lower-paid positions to avoid their harassers.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is toxic,” Gillibrand said. “It harms the workplace. It harms morale. It harms retention. It harms the ability of a company to succeed.”

About 60 million nonunion private sector workers — 56 percent — are subject to mandatory arbitration clauses, often as a condition of employment, according to a survey by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Gillibrand said corporations should do away with the clauses voluntarily.

“When you have highly functioning employees who are happy and feel they can reach their full potential, their businesses are going to thrive,” she said. “And having a predator among them undermines productivity.”

While the #metoo movement has spawned investigations into alleged sexual predators in movies, sports, the news media and corporations, less attention has been paid to women in low-wage fields such as waitressing, custodial work and agriculture, Gillibrand said.

“They rarely have ability to speak truth to power,” she said. “Because if they do, they will either be fired, they might be blackballed or pushed out of industry and they might not be able to get a job fast enough to actually feed their children.”

Last month, Gillibrand joined a chorus of Democrats calling on President Donald Trump to resign, citing allegations of sexual misconduct against the business mogul raised during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump denied the claims, responding on Twitter calling Gillibrand a “lightweight” who would “come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).”

Gillibrand Friday said Trump used a “sexist smear” and was “trying to silence me.”

She added that “my job is to speak out against him. That is my job and I have the ability to do that. He is not my boss.”

Prior to Gillibrand’s speech, a panel told the crowd of about 180 people at the LIA that preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is a multifaceted process that must begin with an organization’s top executives.

“If culture doesn’t begin at the top, then the training that you will give your managers, supervisors and employees is worthless,” said employment lawyer Ken Novikoff of Rivkin Radler in Uniondale.

Companies, he said, must send a message that inappropriate conduct is not acceptable, so “every employee knows not only that ‘I cannot get away with this but … my company is going to take this seriously.’”

Women shouldn’t allow a fear of backlash to keep them from speaking up, another panelist said.

“There are laws on the books that say that the company cannot retaliate against you,” said Aoifa O’Donnell, chief executive of National EAP, a Hauppauge training and employee-services company.

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