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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

New Washington Laws Aim To Address Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee poses with state Sen. Karen Keiser at a bill signing ceremony on Wednesday.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday signed into law several measures aimed at addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. They include a prohibition on non-disclosure agreements that silence victims of harassment or assault.

“The past practice we’ve seen over and over again is that when you have these secrecy clauses … it ends up that women sign the NDAs, they leave their jobs and the man or the perpetrator stays in the job and sometimes get promoted,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation.

Keiser said her goal is to end that pattern. Another new law she authored will require Washington’s Human Rights Commission to develop model policies around sexual harassment that employers can adopt as their own. ?

Keiser said the idea for that grew out of reporting public radio did last year with The News Tribune and The Olympian on a sexualized workplace culture in the upper ranks of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We took that situation and worked with individuals who were aware of what had happened and what should change in terms of culture of really toxic sexuality, and to change that culture is difficult,” Keiser said. “You don’t just do a two-hour training once a year.”

Recently, former Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Greg Schirato was sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping a fellow employee after an agency Christmas party in 2014. ?

The victim, who public radio is not naming because she is the victim of a sexual assault, has filed a notice to sue the state of Washington alleging she experienced a hostile and retaliatory work environment after filing a sexual harassment complaint against Schirato in January 2015 following the rape. ??

The Legislature’s focus on sexual harassment this year also grew out of the #MeToo social media movement. That was sparked after women in Hollywood began publicly accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault. ?

At the bill signing ceremony, Inslee said the state was leading the country on protecting women’s rights.

??“That’s what we do in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

Besides the sexual harassment bills, Inslee signed measures Wednesday updating Washington’s equal pay law for women and requiring health insurance companies that cover maternity care to also cover abortion.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."