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Lawmakers pitch package boosting sex harassment protections

June 5, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Lawmakers are considering a package of legislation designed to better protect Rhode Islanders from sexual harassment amid the #MeToo movement.

The eight bills introduced Friday marked the culmination of a legislative task force led by state Rep. Teresa Tanzi, who proposed the commission this year after she revealed in October that a higher-ranking lawmaker suggested sexual favors would advance her bills.

The House Labor Committee will hold hearings on the legislation Thursday.

Tanzi referred to a WPRI-TV poll from April, when the commission was just starting its work, that showed a vast majority of Rhode Islanders considered sexual harassment a “serious problem.”

“So this is a window of opportunity that we can’t squander,” Tanzi said. “There are protections in here that Rhode Islanders deserve.”

The Democratic representative said the commission worked to build consensus over two months of hearings and testimony. She hopes her colleagues recognize that and pass the bills.

“The point of this commission was to find the middle ground,” Tanzi said, “and I think we threaded that needle.”

Here’s a look at some of the proposals:

NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS

This bill would make it illegal for employers to force workers to sign a nondisclosure or nondisparagement agreement that includes civil rights violations, including sexual harassment. The measure would apply retroactively to agreements that already have been signed. Six states have passed versions of that law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

MANDATATORY TRAINING

Current Rhode Island law encourages employers of more than 50 people in the state to conduct education and training about sexual harassment. Tanzi’s bill would mandate that training.

TIME TO FILE CLAIMS

Two bills address time limits for people to file claims with the Commission for Human Rights, which handles discrimination allegations for the state. The current law allows for an investigation within one year. One bill would increase that period to two years, and another would pause the statute of limitations while the commission conducts its investigation so victims can file lawsuits afterward.

DEFINITION OF ‘EMPLOYEE’

This bill would expand the definition of “employee” for the state’s fair employment practices. Current law applies only to companies with four or more employees. The new bill would apply to any company with one non-family employee and would include unpaid interns and volunteers.

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