At least 11 states, from California to Vermont, passed new protections addressing workplace harassment in 2018 — and many of them go into effect in the new year. California also passed a new law requiring women on corporate boards by the end of 2019.
The reforms come as the #MeToo movement has raised the curtain on sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. It also raised questions about whether board diversity can help combat abuse and prevent discrimination.
Over the years, California has led the way in strengthening workplace protections for women as well as sexual and gender harassment. For one, the nation's most populous state has had laws on the books since 2005 involving mandatory harassment training and education in the workplace.
"California is one of the trailblazers on strengthening laws and there's definitely a lot of political will to move quickly and address inadequacies," said Andrea Johnson, senior counsel for state policy at the National Women's Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for women's rights.
The passage of the tough new harassment policies follows stories in October 2017 by The New York Times and others about film producer Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual abuse, although he has denied having nonconsensual sex with anyone. The reports led to the spread of the #MeToo movement and the toppling of other high-profile figures in media and entertainment as well as other industries.
"2018 is unique in that the #MeToo movement affected all states at the same time I would say," said Nisha Verma, a labor and employment attorney in the Southern California office of Dorsey & Whitney. "So you really similar laws coming up in New York, Washington and some other states simultaneously with California."
In California, there are several new laws passed in 2018 that add protections to prevent sexual harassment or sex discrimination in the workplace:
"In my private mediation practice, I have already seen this new law (SB 820) make a difference in people's bargaining positions when negotiating settlements," said Lisa Klerman, a clinical professor of law and director of the Mediation Clinic at the USC Gould School of Law.
Klerman said an email response that once SB 820 goes into effect in California, "employers may not be willing to pay as much for resolving these claims, given that they are now receiving less in the way of a benefit compared with the prior state of the law that allowed for more 'airtight' nondisclosure agreements concerning sexual harassment and sex discrimination allegations."
However, California wasn't alone in clamping down on companies requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition of employment. Others states doing so in the past year were Maryland, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington, according to the National Women's Law Center.
The center also counted more than 100 bills introduced in states in the past year dealing with different kinds of harassment issues, resulting in at least 11 states (and two localities) passing new protections. Many of the new laws go into effect in the new year.
"A number of legislatures with the states looked at their own internal policies and passed legislation to reform their own internal practices," said Johnson.
Meantime, the California bill requiring women representation on corporate boards could lead to other states passing similar legislation.
The board mandate bill, known as state Senate Bill 826, was signed in early October by outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and requires every publicly held corporation in California to have a minimum of one woman on its board of directors by the end of 2019. By July 2021, the bill would require a minimum of two women on public company boards in the state with five members and at least three women on boards with six or more.
Experts point out that some European countries already have mandates for female representation on boards but they suggest California's move could lead to other states passing similar laws.
Elsewhere, other new California legislation going into effect in 2019 includes everything from plastic straws and child beverages to craft beer to cash bail.