A dozen lawmakers from both the House and the Senate representing both sides of the political aisle held a press conference Monday in a push to move a package of bills they believe will curb sexual harassment and assault both within and outside the halls of the state Capitol.
“Recent stories from around the country, and right here in the legislature, show sexual harassment and abuse have been overlooked for far too long,” said Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware), the Democratic chair of the House Women’s Caucus.
“We are here to say enough is enough. It’s long past time we stepped up to protect women and ensure sexual harassment and assault is not only taken seriously, but that women feel safe enough to come forward as soon as possible.”
Saying that abuse survivors need “laws with teeth,” a number of legislators spoke of bills they have sponsored as part of the legislative package to reform the state’s laws on sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.
Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-Delaware), sponsor of forthcoming legislation banning taxpayer-funded non-disclosure agreements for state government perpetrators of sexual harassment, assault and/or abuse, said that her bill – and others in the legislative package – are aimed at giving those who commit these acts pause.
“(There should be) no more secret lists shared amongst our staff and interns here in the Capitol about which legislators to avoid taking the elevator with, no more wink-wink jokes about which officials are the worst serial harassers,” she said. “Daylight is coming for everyone.”
In addition to banning taxpayer-funded non-disclosure agreements, Krueger-Braneky’s pending legislation will also provide victim protections by requiring leave or home-based work be granted during investigative proceedings, require mandatory sexual harassment training, and establish a protocol for investigations.
Krueger-Braneky added that her legislation already has 40 co-sponsors.
Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) also called for action on her legislation, Senate Bill 999, which would ban further use of non-disclosure agreements in private contracts or settlements when they apply to sexual harassment, assault or abuse claims. It would also negate currently in-force agreements if they were entered into as a result of duress or other conditions that could lead to a questioning of the voluntary nature of the agreement.
“We can no longer grant predators and enablers a place to hide, a place to continue to ambush the unaware and the vulnerable,” she said. “In combination with some of the other legislation we are looking at here today, we are going to create a better work environment for everyone to be able to work without fear of this type of behavior.”
Schwank added her legislation currently has 16 Senate cosponsors.
Other bills discussed were legislation sponsored by Rep. Maureen Madden (D-Monroe) that would lower the amount of employees required to be in a company in order for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to apply from four to one and a bill sponsored by Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (D-York) that would create a task force to examine campus intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
However, the bills specifically mentioned at the press conference are not the only bills aimed at bringing transparency to sexual harassment, particularly within the halls of the Capitol
According to Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), who was present at Monday morning’s press conference, but did not speak, she, Rep. Alex Charlton (R-Delaware) and Rep. Judy Ward (R-Blair) are working together on legislation to ensure proper public accountability is brought to sexual harassment, assault, and abuse claims settled on behalf of lawmakers or government actors.
“As someone who has spent three years in this place working to solve our financial challenges with more transparency, more accountability and putting more fiscal controls in place, to find out that taxpayer dollars are being used to cover up bad behavior – potentially criminal behavior – I was really angry,” she said.
“I think it is incumbent on us to assure that people have due process, but that taxpayer dollars are used for what taxpayers send them to Harrisburg for, which is to fund the core functions of government – covering up misconduct is not a core function of government.”
She added that while Republicans and Democrats might differ about the best way to deal with the issue, the idea that there will be transparency and financial accountability brought to the issue will make perpetrators rein themselves in.
While the lawmakers pushing the bills Monday hoped their efforts would be a catalyst for moving the legislation discussed, leadership in either chamber had no set plans as to when the bills will run.
In the Senate, Republican caucus spokesperson Jenn Kocher noted the bills will be examined as part of a larger look at protecting victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault.
House Republican caucus spokesperson Steve Miskin noted the House legislation has not been formally introduced and will be reviewed at the appropriate time.
“A number of representatives are working on legislation to deal with that,” he said. “Obviously, we will have to see the full extent.”
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.