General Assembly

Female senators join forces on bills to combat sexual harassment

A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to change how sexual harassment cases are handled in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward Commonwealth Media Services

Four female state senators are joining forces to introduce a package of bills to reform how sexual harassment cases are handled in Harrisburg. 

In a joint release issued Tuesday, the prime sponsors of the legislation said their two-bill package will strengthen workplace protections for those who work in state government while also increasing transparency about the use of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment claims. 

The two bills – which are being introduced by President Pro Tempore Kim Ward and state Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, Tracy Pennycuick and Maria Collett – come in the wake of two high-profile sexual harassment scandals that occurred in Harrisburg this year.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Zabel resigned in March after being accused of sexual harassment by multiple people, including a union lobbyist and sitting state representative.

In September, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s longtime aide Mike Vereb resigned as secretary of legislative affairs, and a subsequent report from The Philadelphia Inquirer found that Vereb was facing a sexual harassment complaint in the weeks leading up to his exit. A report from Spotlight PA later revealed that Shapiro’s office agreed to pay $295,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment allegation made against Vereb.

“The recent sexual harassment incidents in the Capitol have presented us with a learning opportunity that we can and should do better,” Ward said Tuesday in a statement. “Sexual harassment is not a political issue. It is a human issue. While we can’t eradicate all instances, we can do our best to address these matters swiftly and ensure transparency in how taxpayer funds are disbursed.” 

Ward and Collett are sponsoring the first piece of legislation, which would require the General Assembly and all state agencies to use a third party when investigating sexual harassment claims. 

Collett, the only Democrat of the four senators, said government officials and staff should be held to the highest standards. “There can be no tolerance for sexual harassment in any workplace, especially one that serves the people of our Commonwealth,” she said in a statement. 

The second bill, sponsored by Phillips Hill and Pennycuick, would mandate state lawmakers and all state agencies “to self-report the total number of monetary settlements with non-disclosure agreements as they relate to actual or threatened litigation against members or employees stemming from sexual harassment or discrimination based on sex.” The reports would be posted and published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, according to a co-sponsorship memo circulated by the bill’s sponsors. 

The legislation, if signed into law, would apply to employees at all state agencies, as well as the governor’s office, the judicial branch, the office of the attorney general, the auditor general’s office and the Pennsylvania Treasury. Both bills must be voted out of committee before receiving a vote on the Senate floor. 

Republican members in the state House are set to introduce a separate bill package concerning sexual harassment on Wednesday in the state Capitol.