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Democratic senator joins Republicans to kill bill aimed at workplace harassment

Democratic senator joins Republicans to kill bill aimed at workplace harassment

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Representatives of Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring backed a bill to strengthen Virginia’s laws against sexual harassment and workplace harassment. But a Democratic senator joined Republicans on a committee Monday to stop the proposal from moving forward this year.

The Senate had already rejected a similar bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, after a hearing in which men on the Senate Judiciary Committee posed hypothetical scenarios, and McClellan repeatedly asked them to stop interrupting her.

But a House version carried by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, made its way to the Senate where it died in that committee Monday by a vote of 7-6. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, joined Republicans in opposition, citing fears of how it would affect business.

Current law requires someone who wants to file a lawsuit against a business in state court over sexual harassment or workplace harassment to first go through an administrative process in the Attorney General’s Office, with a chance for mediation. Some cases then go to court. That process is similar under federal law.

“This bill is about helping fact finders like me as well as employers and employees understand where the line is for workplace harassment,” said Helen Hardiman, an assistant attorney general who works in the agency’s Office of Civil Rights.

The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, although neutral on the bill, previously expressed concerns, and the National Federation of Independent Business was opposed.

To address business concerns, the bill had already been changed to a point that some advocates didn’t like it anymore, said Megan Healy, chief workforce adviser to the governor. But she said it still would be a good step.

“Since 2017, there’s actually been 19 states that have strengthened their [laws on] harassment in the workplace,” Healy told the committee.

Current state law makes workplace harassment and sexual harassment illegal. Workers at a business with more than five employees are protected under the law from being fired as part of harassment. Workers are protected from harassment, even if they’re not fired, if they work at a business with 15 or more employees.

Andrea Johnson, a lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center who worked on the legislation, said she has not seen that distinction in other states.

The legislation would have changed that to protect workers at businesses with five or more employees from harassment as well.

Petersen said his concern was whether the state should drop 15 to five. Two other Democratic senators who expressed concerns, Joe Morrissey of Richmond and Scott Surovell of Fairfax, opted not to vote on Watts’ bill.

“There are so many misconceptions about workplace harassment and what the bill does,” Johnson said. “So we need to spend the next few months educating senators.”

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