Three states move to block agreements concealing harassment at work

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, legislators in New York, New Jersey, and California are working to stop the secret settlements that allegedly allowed the Oscar-winning Hollywood producer’s sexual harassment of women to go unchecked for decades. The New York Times revealed how Weinstein reached at least eight settlements with women after they confronted him about his unwanted sexual advances. As part of these payouts, the Times said that women had to sign confidentiality clauses that prevented them from speaking out about their experiences.

Zelda Perkins, Weinstein’s former assistant at Miramax, purposely broke the nondisclosure agreement she reached with Weinstein to argue against this legal process.

“Unless somebody does this there won’t be a debate about how egregious these agreements are and the amount of duress that victims are put under,” she told the Financial Times about why she was breaking her NDA by talking publicly about it. “My entire world fell in because I thought the law was there to protect those who abided by it. I discovered that it had nothing to do with right and wrong and everything to do with money and power.”

New bills aim to stop Harvey Weinstein settlements from happening again

Binding confidentiality agreements are used across industries as hush money to keep sexual harassment claims secret. Fox News host Bill O’ Reilly reportedly paid $32 million in one of the series of settlements he made with women who worked with him and accused him of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. In a month of multiple famous men being accused of predatory behavior, legislators are taking notice of the settlements employers of these accused men use to hush up these scandals.

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic sponsored a recent New York bill, which would ban settlements over claims of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. If the bill passes, workplace harassment settlement agreements would be deemed “unconscionable, void and unenforceable.”

“As we’ve seen in the Weinstein matter, these types of settlement agreements perpetuate harassment of other people for decades,” state Sen. Hoylman told BuzzFeed News. “Employees who are in a position of very little agency, power, are being forced, it would appear, to sign away their rights.”

That’s the line of thinking New Jersey legislators also used in their own proposed ban on secret settlements. “Corporate boards of directors keep on approving settlements to cover executives who then go on to commit the same offense,” New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said.

The belief is that by forcing these embarrassing settlements to go public, predatory behavior can be exposed and cycles of abuse can be broken. It was the public outcry after Weinstein’s behavior was investigated by journalists that finally forced Weinstein to be fired from his own company.

California lawmaker Connie Leyva told Variety that she was directly inspired by the Weinstein scandal to introduce legislation in her state to end secret sexual harassment settlements in early 2018. “We really need to remove the curtain of secrecy about what’s happening,” Levya said. “Ultimately that’s what hurts victims and enables perpetrators to continue to do this and remain hidden.”