WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday gave victims of workplace sexual assault or harassment the right to seek recourse in a court of law instead of through forced arbitration proceedings.
Biden signed into law the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, which bars employment contracts from forcing people to settle claims of sexual assault or harassment through private arbitration proceedings instead of in a court of law.
Employers often benefit from the process, which keeps misconduct allegations from becoming public.
The law is retroactive, freeing individuals who have been bound by arbitration language to pursue legal action against their harassers.
Biden called it a “momentous day for justice and fairness in the workplace.”
“To those who experienced sexual harassment or assault, you’re going to have the right today that you did not have yesterday,” the president said.
An estimated 60 million workers are bound by forced arbitration clauses slipped into their employment contracts, with many unaware the language exists, Biden said. Private arbitration keeps them from knowing who else may have suffered similar indignities.
As a result of the #MeToo movement, the widespread practice has come under fire for forcing employees to seek recourse without a jury, a chance to appeal an arbitrator’s decision or the sunlight of a public court process.
Biden said giving employers absolute power to decide how sexual assault or harassment claims are resolved isn’t how justice is supposed to work.
“Some survivors will want their day in court, and that should be their choice and nobody else’s choice,” Biden said at a White House ceremony where he signed the bill.
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who accused the network’s late CEO Roger Ailes of making unwanted advances and harming her career when she rejected him, testified to Congress in support of the bill. Some employee contracts at Fox included binding arbitration clauses.
Carlson said the law is a great way to kick off Women’s History Month.
“Everyone will know that women’s voices can be heard,” she said at the White House.
Defenders of the arbitration process, including business groups, argue that it is a faster and cheaper way to resolve disputes than through lengthy courtroom proceedings.
The legislation enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in a divided Congress, allowing the Senate to pass it by unanimous consent — a procedure almost never used for significant legislation, especially one affecting tens of millions of people. The House passed the bill 335-97 in February.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has focused on combating sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the military, originally introduced the bill in 2017 with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Colleen Long and Darlene Superville report for The Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Michelle Price in New York contributed to this report.