Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, Cary Brown and Sen. Carolyn Branagan
An impressively broad array of Vermont lawmakers stood united Thursday in support of a new bill designed to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.
House Bill 707 has 56 cosponsors, including Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and independents. House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) both attended an announcement about the bill in the Statehouse's Cedar Creek Room.
The bill is designed to remove barriers to reporting sexual harassment and protect those who report offenses. It would prohibit employment agreements that bar victims from filing complaints or gaining redress, protect employees from being fired after making a complaint, and extend protections to people working as independent contractors.
"The #MeToo movement brought forward a critical and long-overdue conversation," said Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), the bill's lead sponsor. "Women and men have come forward in unprecedented numbers to confront lawless workplace sexual harassment."
She noted that people in high-profile professions may get a measure of rough justice through public shaming, but "a few forced resignations will do very little to protect the average factory worker, restaurant server or store clerk."
"We hear directly from women across the state with stories of how sexual harassment is making it difficult or even impossible to do their jobs," said Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women. "Every time a woman cuts back her hours or takes time off from work or is driven out of her job entirely, her family suffers financially, but our entire economy suffers as well."
The bill would also require that settlements of sexual harassment complaints be filed with the state attorney general's office. Assistant Attorney General Julio Thompson acknowledged that the AG's office has never compiled data on sexual harassment — partly because it lacked the resources until recently, but also because most cases never reach the courts.
"If we want to be able to make a change, we need to know what the landscape is," said Copeland Hanzas. "Are we seeing the tip of the iceberg, or the broad spectrum?"
Those filings would be exempt from the state's public records law; Copeland Hanzas said that some of the claims would not have been adjudicated. "Simply because someone settled an allegation of sexual harassment doesn't mean that sexual harassment occurred," she said. "It could be that it was the expedient thing to do." She said the purpose is not public exposure, but getting "a handle on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace."
The bill has been referred to the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. Its chair, Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington) said hearings on H.707 may begin as soon as next week.