Workers, labor groups and civil rights advocates emphasized the need for stronger laws against workplace harassment and discrimination during an Aug. 7 roundtable with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
Eric Gonzalez Alfaro, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said his farmworker parents often talked about the injustices they endured.
“What’s clear is that the sexual harassment, retaliation, and civil rights violations they endured are just as endemic today as they were then,” Alfaro said during the meeting Wednesday morning at the United Food Commercial Workers Union 1439 building in Yakima.
Murray, who was in Yakima for several events, said she wanted to hear from workers as she continues work on the Be HEARD Act, legislation that would strengthen protections against workplace harassment and discrimination. Be HEARD stands for Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination.
Murray introduced the legislation in April. The bill was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
It calls for research on the economic impact of workplace harassment, worker training on identifying harassment and a review of their rights when they’re harassed.
The bill also provides workers more time and support when they need to speak up on workplace harassment and discrimination and expands civil rights protections for employees.
Additionally, it aims to end mandatory arbitration and pre-employment nondisclosure agreements that often prevent workers from coming forward and holding employers accountable.
At the start of the roundtable, Murray noted sexual harassment and discrimination is a high-profile topic in Hollywood.
“That’s all well and good, but it reminded me there are people who go to work every day in offices, in the fields, here in regular, average jobs that are facing that and do not have the high-profile ability to speak out but are seeing this harassment,” Murray said.
She said that prompted her to look at current laws regarding workforce harassment, where she found “gaping holes.”
David Morales, who helped farmworkers tackle workplace harassment and discrimination in his former role with the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said the laws do not adequately protect today’s farmworkers.
For one, there are often multiple people involved in the employment of farmworkers. There’s the grower, the subcontractor who hired the workers and those in Mexico who recruited them.
As a result, it isn’t clear whom to hold accountable when a worker is harassed, he said.
“The end result is no one is responsible for the harassment in the workplace,” Morales said.
Steve Maki, training director for Central Washington Building and Construction Trades, voiced support for the legislation, noting that he’s seen positive results when the workers he trains at the Hanford Site are aware of their rights.
Several farmworkers also spoke during the meeting, including Maria Gonzalez, an organizer for the United Farm Workers of America.
Gonzalez said that while working for a local dairy, she would receive catcalls and other undesired comments. That eventually escalated to a co-worker sexually harassing her.
She tried to inform her supervisor, but that led the harasser to threaten her. She lived in constant fear.
Eventually, she got an attorney who helped her secure a settlement, but she said employers need to be held accountable when harassment occurs, and workers like her need better protection.
“All these companies should not let (harassment) happen to the workers helping them make the profits,” she said through a translator.
Several other workers shared stories of harassment and the retaliation that resulted when they spoke out.
“They set us up as an example of what happens if we speak up,” said Victor Licona Herandez, who shared his experience with harassment while working at a local dairy.
At the end of the roundtable, Murray emphasized she would continue to push for the passage of the Be HEARD legislation and that it was essential to hear from workers.