Skip to main content

Davis Journal

Sexual harassment bill gives victims a voice

Feb 29, 2024 08:55AM ● By Becky Ginos
Rep. Kera Birkeland gives a fist bump to 9-year-old Edwin Otterstrom-Young following a press conference detailing HB55 on sexual harassment in the workplace. Birkeland is the sponsor of the bill. Photo by Becky Ginos

Rep. Kera Birkeland gives a fist bump to 9-year-old Edwin Otterstrom-Young following a press conference detailing HB55 on sexual harassment in the workplace. Birkeland is the sponsor of the bill. Photo by Becky Ginos

UTAH STATE CAPITOL—Sexual harassment in the workplace is often downplayed or ignored by employers. At least 80% of women and 43% of men have experienced some sort of sexual harassment at work and 70% of victims face retaliation after reporting. That harassment perpetuates a cycle of fear and silence. A monumental piece of legislation, HB55 passed out of both the House and Senate last week that would give voice to those victims.

“Only one in three cases are resolved favorably for the victim,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross who is the floor sponsor. “That leaves survivors without recourse. Title VII, which is a federal law, excludes small businesses under 15 employees, leaving countless harassed workers defenseless and denied justice in Utah.”

Utah is proud of its small businesses, Weiler said. “Most of our coworkers, our friends and families work for small businesses and HB55 extends protections to those small business employees.”

“I don’t know a single woman who has not experienced some sort of sexual harassment,” said Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan who sponsored HB55. “I talked to House Republican women and all but two had experienced sexual harassment sometime in their life in the workplace.”

Some said it started even before they entered their employment career, said Birkeland. “It was at school or at community events or activities. It’s not OK and too often we just think it’s us. Too often we think that we’re going to be ignored or we’re going to be told to just deal with it and grow up. Be a big girl, you know, handle it yourself.”

That just perpetuates it, she said. “We have to stand up and say it’s not OK and we have to be brave enough to do it. We have to have the state sometimes backing us up. You can’t tell a woman who’s in desperate need of a job that she can’t work there unless she signed something saying that if she’s sexually harassed here in Utah, she has to keep quiet as a condition to work. I can’t even believe that was on our books.”

“I think that the concern we’re trying to address is you can have a serial harasser and every case looks like it’s the first time it happened,” said Weiler. “Because I think most businesses and most employers may be more willing to forgive and forget if it’s a first time and the prior eight victims have been silenced. That’s what we’re trying to put a stop to.”

A lot of them would be more willing to come forward if they hear someone else endorse the same treatment at their former place of work but they can’t, said Birkeland. “I hope women and men who otherwise feel silenced feel like they're empowered to speak up. I hope that they come forward and tell people what’s happened to them.”

“I want to emphasize that while this will primarily help women, I do think there are men who are harassed, maybe by a female supervisor or a male supervisor,” said Weiler. “I’m just saying it might be primarily women that are going to benefit from this but I don't think it’s exclusive.”

HB55 works to combat the statistics of sexual harassment by declaring that all employers should understand harassing an employee is unacceptable. The sponsors ask Congress to update Title VII to:

• Protect all Americans from sexual harassment at work.

• Raise the settlement cap for victims and tie it to inflation – Congress has not raised the cap on sexual harassment settlements since 1991.

• Break the silence. Federal law does not protect a victim from being forced to accept a settlement as terms of employment.

• Set a cancellation window: Helps prevent victims from being silenced by unduly quick settlements.

• End serial abuse – safeguard victims when responding to subpoenas against the same abuser.

  “I’m telling you,” said Birkeland. “I have talked to many women who sat down when they got the job and were so excited because they needed the job. Then they’re onboarding and filling out all their paperwork. One of them was if you’re sexually harassed here in the workplace you won’t disclose it and that was a condition to decide to continue their employment. This law gives them a voice.”