Millions of California workers may now have a new avenue to pursue legal action against their bosses with the passage of Assembly Bill 51 (Gonzalez, D-San Diego), largely the result of women's rights advocates fighting for greater protections in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
The legislation essentially bans employers from requiring employees and prospective employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, and prevents employers from taking retaliatory action against employees for not signing said agreements.
Employers have long enjoyed the ability to force employees into arbitration as a way to avoid being sued for things like discrimination and sexual harassment, effectively silencing victims and avoiding jury trials that might provide more favorable rulings for employees.
The new law, taking effect January 1, 2020, still allows for the use of arbitration agreements between employer and employee, and employees who sign said agreements will still be beholden to their terms. But employees are no longer forced to sign them as a condition of employment.
The bill follows on the heels of the U.S. House of Representatives passing the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act in September which would end the practice of forced arbitration on a national scale. The Senate, however, has yet to take up the bill for debate.
Challenges to California's legislation will likely be spearheaded by big business groups hoping that the law will be preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act - the reason given by then-Governor Jerry Brown for his veto of similar legislation last year.
As the legality of AB 51 is bound to come into question, it's important to remind victims of sexual harassment that there's another avenue that they can utilize to obtain benefits for their suffering: workers' compensation.
When sexual harassment happens in the workplace and results in psychological injury, employees have the right to file a claim for workers' compensation benefits to obtain treatment and hopefully begin the long process toward healing.
As greater protections continue to come into fruition for victims of discrimination, harassment and sexual assault, we can only hope that these practices, along with forced arbitration, become a dark scar from our past.
For now, employees can enjoy another legislative win from this year's session and thank women's rights advocates everywhere for giving them a stronger voice.