fbpx

Debate continues over Pa. response to #MeToo

More than a year has passed since the #MeToo movement went viral, and efforts in Pennsylvania to address sexual harassment and pay disparity in the workplace will continue to play out, observers note, especially now that Gov. Tom Wolf has been re-elected to another four-year term.

From legislation to studies to educational efforts, Pennsylvanians have continued to adjust to the heightened sense of awareness swirling around gender and workplace issues. While some are advocating solutions that do not require legislative action, others maintain that bills and proposals should be aggressively pursued.

Sen. Judy Schwank, a Democrat representing Berks County, said she is encouraged by efforts in the business community, at the state and local levels, to push seminars and education that address sexual harassment and other issues but thinks legislation is a critical part of the mix.

“Employers have a serious role to play,” said Schwank. “But I am still concerned that unless there are laws in place … women will not get the protections.”

Schwank was among the many legislators who introduced bills in the past year. Her proposal, which she will reintroduce in January, would prohibit private-sector contracts from containing non-disclosure agreements related to sexual harassment. After hearing from a number of different stakeholders, Schwank said she decided to amend her proposal so that victims could ask for privacy, if they desired.

Legislation introduced by other legislators would limit non-disclosures involving state employees after it was revealed that taxpayer money had been used over the years to settle numerous harassment complaints involving legislators and state workers, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Philadelphia newspapers reporting that the state had spent at least $3.2 million on such cases.

EDUCATION FIRST

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is among the groups that have expressed caution about legislation and has been pushing for reforms through education. Alex Halper, the chamber’s director of government affairs, noted that the chamber’s annual human resources conference to be held on Nov. 27 is one of many educational efforts underway by business groups statewide to ensure companies address workplace harassment directly.

The conference, which will be held at the Hershey Lodge, includes a number of panel discussions and keynote addresses that will review the increase in sexual harassment and discrimination cases and what employers should do to limit issues at worksites, according to the chamber’s website.

“The business community and the chamber need to bring awareness to improve workplaces,” Halper said. “It also is critically important for employers to work to rid the workplace of the scourge of inappropriate behavior.”

Halper said the chamber believes educational efforts are the best route to improvements, rather than legislation, but he said there is a recognition that the legislative efforts will continue.

“Employers can’t wait for legislation to take additional action,” Halper said. “But there is bipartisan interest coming from all stakeholders to address these issues.”

Any legislation needs to be carefully thought through, or what seems like a well-intended measure could end up causing more problems, he said. Halper pointed to the efforts to stem non-disclosure agreements, where victims’ advocates were among those asking that the measures not go too far in cases where victims might want agreements to remain private.

“That was an example of what seems like a positive reform but could create unintended consequences,” he said.

WOLF EXPECTED TO ACT

Several observers noted that they were encouraged by the re-election of Wolf, who won a second term as governor this month.

Early this year, the Wolf administration proposed a slate of reforms to combat sexual harassment, including a measure to extend workplace protections to companies with a minimum of one worker, instead of the four under current law. The Wolf-backed proposals also called for mandatory workplace training and a renewed push for the PA Fairness Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, said the governor remains committed to his agenda.

“Governor Wolf had pushed again for these bills to get votes at the end of the session and was disappointed that they did not move,” Abbott said in an email.  “Governor Wolf believes our laws need these changes to combat and prevent sexual harassment, while providing more protections for victims. He will continue to work with those in the General Assembly that agree.”

Republican resolutions backed by Reps. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest) and Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) called for studies to see how to improve laws and procedures relating to sexual harassment and misconduct involving state workers.

Delozier said Nov. 9 that the review is expected to be completed by late spring.

Several people noted that the climate has evolved over the past year, particularly since the contentious confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“The way that all played out made people uneasy,” Schwank said. “People have misgivings on either side of the issues.”

MANY DETAILS, LITTLE CONSENSUS

Many of the various proposals have been around for years, and the discussions and debates since #MeToo have given everyone a chance to dig into the details, observers said. For example, bills that would address pay inequities between men and women have come back into the spotlight, although there is little consensus on how to proceed.

Terry Fromson, the managing attorney for the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, said Pennsylvania has a long way to go to address equity issues. Her group maintains that the median annual pay for a full-time female worker is $39,905, compared to $50,412 for men. For years, the group has pushed for an update to the state’s Equal Pay Act, which was last updated in 1967, according to the group’s website.

“I always remain optimistic that Pennsylvania will do the right things,” she said, adding that she is nevertheless doubtful that equal-pay initiatives will draw support from the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Halper maintained that measures to address pay offer another example of where the chamber is concerned about unintended consequences.

“I think there is a recognition that they need to get it right,” he said. As far as pay issues, he added, there might be sound reasons why an employer pays one worker differently than another. Legislation, however, may not take those factors into account.

“We believe the outcome would have been to make it impossible for an employer to defend pay disparity,” he said. 

Sandi Thompson is strategic programs manager for the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and industry, which has a Women in Business Group that advocates for education, mentorships and issues involving women in the workplace. Thompson said her group recognizes that businesses need flexibility in setting pay, and that workers who leave the workforce for whatever reason might be paid less than counterparts who do not. That position acknowledges that the people leaving the workforce and re-entering later often are women who start families, she said.

With that said, she added, the Lancaster Chamber works to educate women on strategies to negotiate pay and overcome obstacles. An overall goal is to grow the female workforce and encourage leadership. The group holds various workshops throughout the year to encourage networking and strengthen education about issues facing women, said Thompson, who has been with the chamber for 27 years.

“These issues have been going on long before the #MeToo movement,” she said.

Business Journal Events

2019 Business of the Year Awards

Wednesday, December 04, 2019
2019 Business of the Year Awards

Outlook on 2020

Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Outlook on 2020

2020 Real Estate & Development Symposium

Thursday, March 12, 2020
2020 Real Estate & Development Symposium

2020 Forty Under 40 Awards

Wednesday, April 22, 2020
2020 Forty Under 40 Awards