For far too long, Minnesota’s arcane sexual harassment policy has failed both employees and employers. A 2018 Star Tribune Minnesota Poll reported that nearly two out of three women in the state have personally experienced sexual harassment. We hope that 2020 is the year we can finally provide clarity in our laws, so that neither employees nor employers must continue to tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.
Minnesota courts have held that the harassment must be “severe” or “pervasive” in order for a sexual harassment survivor to hold their abuser accountable. This means individuals experiencing sexual harassment must be subjected to the abuse over a prolonged period of time — or endure the abuse until it finally becomes “severe.” According to Minnesota case law, unwanted intimate touching and kissing is not considered “severe.” We simply cannot keep asking Minnesota employees and employers to put up with this oppressive and outdated standard that puts their health, safety and dignity at risk.
Last session, the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee heard from survivors on the limitations of the current sexual harassment standard. A.S.K. shared her heartbreaking story of repeatedly being stalked and physically assaulted by a group of customers at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. (To protect her identity, only her initials are given here.) Her multiple requests to managers to not serve these customers were ignored. Her managers forced her to serve these customers or end her shift. This abuse occurred weekly for more than a year. Each week, A.S.K. had to choose between paying her rent and protecting her physical, emotional and mental well-being. A.S.K’s legal case was dismissed for failing to meeting the severe or pervasive standards. She deserves better. We all deserve better.
Minnesota employers want to create a company culture where all employees feel valued, respected and safe. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many have begun the work to root out harassment in the workplace. But the lack of a practical sexual harassment standard not only prevents them from doing so, it actually increases the gap between harassment that is “illegal” and harassment that employers are seeking to address. We can support employers in creating safer company cultures by passing sexual harassment reform legislation. Under House File 10, no employer will be liable if it responds reasonably to a claim of sexual harassment. This bill gives employers the ability to do the right thing for their employees.
Sexual harassment reform is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This affects all Minnesotans. In the 2019 session, this bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support. We are grateful for the leadership and progress that former House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, made on this important issue in the 2018 legislative session. We invite our legislative colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, to join us in fighting for a safe working environment for all Minnesota employees and employers.
Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota Senate. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, is a member of the Minnesota House. They are the chief authors of the sexual harassment reform legislation HF 10/SF 1307. On Twitter: @KariDziedzic and @KellyForUs.