California invoice targets NDAs that forestall employees from talking about discrimination | California
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A new bill introduced in California targets gag rules that discourage workers from talking about harassment and discrimination when leaving a job.
These agreements, known as nondisclosure agreements or NDAs, are common at major technology companies in Hollywood and in the media and prevent former employees from disclosing information about the inner workings of a company. NDAs have often been criticized for protecting companies from public allegations of misconduct such as sexual misconduct, racism or discriminatory treatment.
SB 331, sponsored by California Senator Connie Leyva, is also known as the Silenced No More Act and would expand current protections against secret settlements in the workplace and further ban the use of confidentiality for workers leaving a company.
In 2018 California passed law banning their use to hide allegations of sexual harassment. SB 331 seeks to extend this protection to all forms of discrimination, including racism.
“It is unacceptable for an employer to try to silence an employee because he or she has been a victim of any kind of harassment or discrimination – whether based on race, sexual orientation, religion, age or any other characteristic,” Leyva said in a statement. “SB 331 will give survivors the opportunity to speak up – if they so choose – so that they can hold the perpetrators accountable and hopefully prevent the abusers from continuing to torture and abuse other workers.”
Legislation was co-led with Leyva by Ifeoma Ozoma, the former political manager at Pinterest who went public in 2020 on allegations of discrimination within the company, along with her colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks. Both of these alleged Pinterest did little to protect them from harassment inside and outside the company.
In deciding to share her experience on Pinterest, Ozoma said she had to weigh a number of concerns – most importantly, whether she wanted to risk taking legal action for violating the NDA she signed with the company. She said she doesn’t want other people in the tech industry or elsewhere to have to make the same choices.
“We want to make sure that anyone who goes through something like this has the ability to speak up and hold people accountable without worrying about going bankrupt,” she said. “All barriers to reporting are barriers to accountability.”
In addition to legal and financial restrictions, NDAs also have a significant emotional impact, Ozoma said. People exposed to harassment remain isolated and cannot even share their experiences with those who are close to them.
“Imagine leaving your job and being unable to tell anyone, including your spouse, why,” she said. “It’s trauma on top of the initial discrimination you faced.”
The bill was supported by a number of labor and human rights organizations, including the AI Now Institute, Color of Change, Times Up, and Equal Rights Advocates. If passed, the law would spark a wave of change in the technology world and beyond, affecting all workers in the most populous state in the country.
While tech companies have become infamous for using stringent NDAs in recent years, this bill would affect every industry in California, said Jessica Ramey Stender, senior counsel at Equal Rights Advocates, and will particularly benefit low-wage workers who don’t the feeling of being able to negotiate NDAs with which to serve them when leaving a position. The bill is “critical,” she said, because it allows workers to speak about discrimination beyond discrimination.
“This legislation recognizes the reality that many workers experience intersectional discrimination not only because of their gender but also because of other protected classes such as race or national origin,” she said. “SB 331 is an important step forward in ensuring that they can talk about their entire experience as a woman of color or as a person with a disability.”
“This is a broader public accountability issue. Consumers have the right to know if a company has incidents of discrimination or harassment,” she said.
SB 331 should be heard in the California Senate at the end of March.