A Jersey girl changes the American workplace (reprise) | Editorial

Published: Jul. 05, 2022

Tens of millions of women in this country may be facing sexual harassment, abuse, misogyny, or racism in the workplace, but we never hear their stories because they have been fitted with a legal muzzle.

Nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, prevent one-third of the American workforce from coming forward with reports of misconduct, but that may be about to change – in large part because of two intrepid women who helped turbocharge this cultural revolution known as the #MeToo movement.

Congress introduced bipartisan legislation last week that would prevent employers from enforcing NDAs in cases of sexual misconduct or other forms of abuse -- a giant step toward lifting the toxic cloud hovering over some workplaces – and history will note the courage and perseverance of activists like Julie Roginsky and Gretchen Carlson for helping us get here.

We haven’t had many chances to celebrate positive developments for women and ordinary workers this summer, but this is one of them.

“If you don’t remove these NDAs, you are pushing out the very people you that you claim you want to protect and promote,” said Roginsky, the political consultant who is also a weekly contributor to the Star-Ledger and NJ.com. “Because it is women, people of color, and the LGBT community that are most likely to face abuses in the workplace. And they’re often not only forced to leave their chosen jobs, but their chosen careers.”

Since they founded the non-profit advocacy group Lift Our Voices in 2019, Roginsky and Carlson have heard from thousands of women who have been silenced.

While NDAs serve a purpose -- such as protecting proprietary information – they are also commonly used by companies and powerful individuals to prevent victims from discussing sexual abuse and retaliation. Sometimes victims agree to this hush contract as part of a settlement. Sometimes they agree because they fear retaliation or job loss. An NDA could keep them from reporting abuse in the first place.

Either way, nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements allow predators to hide – and perpetuate – their toxic behavior. And if it goes unreported and unpunished, it contributes to psychological wounds for victims whose stories remain hidden, sometimes forever.

Roginsky’s own crucible is known to readers of this space. Both she and Carlson successfully sued Fox News major domo Roger Ailes (in 2017 and 2016, respectively) for sexual harassment, but NDAs still prevent them from telling their stories – even after countless news reports and Hollywood itself took that liberty.

But Roginsky faced other devastating and compromising consequences when she ran Gov. Murphy’s first campaign for governor, which was populated by abusive men whose behavior was excused by the candidate. When she reported the abuse to Murphy, she was fired. After she was fired, she was discredited – the governor’s office even released rubbish emails that accused her of “actively working against the campaign” – a damaging charge they lobbed at the media and never had the integrity to defend.

Roginsky could not fight back – because her contract included an NDA.

“You hear the most horrible things about yourself,” she said. “I was accused of embezzling money, leaking information to George Norcross, and derailing the campaign of the man I found, groomed, and made the Democratic nominee for governor.”

Even as Murphy stated publicly that women were free to talk, his campaign attorney sent Roginsky emails warning her to keep quiet.

But for Roginsky, the worst came when Katie Brennan reached out to her for advice, after accusing a fellow staffer on the Murphy campaign of rape in 2017.

There was little Roginsky could offer – because of that same gag order.

“I had two choices: One was to violate my NDA by speaking to her, and risk being sued by a multimillionaire with unlimited lawyers,” Roginsky said. “Choice 2 was to keep my mouth shut. And I am ashamed to say I chose that one.”

Ultimately, the campaign released her from the NDA, the state law changed after Trenton finally discerned which way the political winds were blowing, and needless to say, Roginsky and Lift Our Voices have helped countless victims since then.

In March, with Carlson and Roginsky in the room, President Biden signed a bill that ended forced arbitration in cases of assault and harassment -- a monumental step toward allowing survivors to earn justice. Until then, work disputes could only be heard in a secret chamber – no juries, witnesses, or appeals – if a forced arbitration clause appeared in their contracts, which allowed employers to choose a third party to adjudicate the dispute.

That clause had appeared in the fine print for 60 million American workers -- many of them in low-wage and hourly jobs – and its erasure was a triumph for Lift Our Voices. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, called it “one of the most significant workplace reforms in American history.”

But the job is not done, because millions of victims are still hamstrung by NDAs.

The proposed Speak Out Act has momentum, with sponsors from both parties and more than a dozen states that have already passed their own law. Corporate America is catching on: When Washington state passed its own law, Roginsky points out, Microsoft not only eliminated NDAs for employees there, but for its employees across the world.

Still, there are too many places where a survivor can only offer a blank stare if a prospective employer asks why she left her last position.

“The woman who replies, ‘I can’t discuss it’ is never going to get hired,” Roginsky said, “It looks like she did something wrong and she’s trying to keep a secret, when it’s the NDA that’s preventing her from speaking up.”

With 70 percent of women in the American workforce experiencing harassment in the workplace, it’s time to speak up and speak out. We’re glad a Jersey girl is holding the bullhorn.


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published this page in News and Politics 2022-07-07 02:45:37 -0700