Biden signs Bustos-led bill into law, freeing millions of American workers from forced arbitration
President Joe Biden has officially signed a bill to end forced arbitration, freeing more than 60 million Americans from contractual agreements that seek to silence survivors of workplace sexual assault and harassment.
The bill, House Resolution 44-54, was championed by Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Quad City Democrat who has represented Illinois' 17th Congressional District since 2013. That includes parts of Greater Peoria.
By voiding forced arbitration clauses in the case of sexual assault and harassment, Bustos said her bill provides survivors of sexual violence and harassment the freedom to decide what legal path works best for them.
For example, they can choose whether they want to bring forth a claim in public court, discuss their case publicly or seek another kind of legal remedy.
"This has been called the most significant labor law of this century," Bustos said. "This will change lives."
I signed the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 into law. This is a momentous day for justice and fairness in the workplace. For those who experience sexual harassment or assault, you have a right today that you did not have yesterday.— President Biden (@POTUS) March 3, 2022
Earlier this week, Bustos hosted a Zoom webinar with survivors of forced arbitration. WCBU sat in on the call.
Speakers included Lora Henry, a former employee of Ken Ganley Kia, a car dealership in Medina, Ohio. That's where Henry said her supervisor sexually assaulted her. When she complained, Kia told Henry she was at fault and she was eventually fired.
“Many women when starting a new job are given a stack of papers, in front of them, told to sign ‘here,’ ‘here’ and ‘here.’ ‘Just HR stuff,’ I was told. I did not know at the time that I had signed a binding, confidential arbitration agreement,” Henry said. “That secret agreement allowed my boss to sexually harass me wit the confidence that no one would ever find out, so that he could block me from having my day in court.”
To this day, arbitration clauses prevent Henry from speaking publicly about what happened to her. It was only after being issued Congressional subpoenas last fall that she and other women were able to share their stories.
Julia Duncan, senior director of government affairs for the American Association for Justice, said this fact highlights the cruelty of forced arbitration.
“It’s important to remember the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American a right to trial by jury,” she said. “Forced arbitration allows corporations to write themselves out of that constitutional right.”
Bustos' fight to end forced arbitration dates to 2017, when she read a Washington Post article about a group of women whose harassment and discrimination claims were diverted to forced arbitration.
Lawmakers have fought to end forced arbitration for years, however Bustos said previous attempts failed because they were considered too broad by Republicans.
To achieve bipartisan support for her bill, Bustos moved it out of the Civil Rights Act and rewrote the language to "simply" include victims of sexual harassment and assault.
"We were willing to compromise," she said. "We got a Republican co-sponsor right off the bat. ... Morgan (Griffith) was a good partner. Ken Buck was a tremendous partner."
In the Senate, Bustos credited Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., for his support.
Part of what ultimately pushed the needle on the issue, Bustos said, was Congress bringing women forward to share their stories through the subpoenas.
"You think about getting in front of members of Congress, where it's streamed on C-Span for everybody to see and hear, and tell their personal stories," she said. "It's just incredible, incredible bravery."