RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill that stops survivors of sexual misconduct from being silenced by confidentiality clauses in employment contracts passed with almost unanimous support over the weekend in the Virginia General Assembly.
But the bill was watered down after facing opposition primarily from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which declined an interview request on Tuesday.
The version that passed on Saturday is largely symbolic, as it mirrors existing federal law that recently passed in Congress.
Governor Glenn Youngkin still has a chance to make amendments or sign the legislation as is. Youngkin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson kicked off a series of sexual harassment claims that toppled media giant Roger Ailes and gave momentum to the #MeToo movement in its early stages.
“In the summer of 2016, I realized that we have two epidemics in our country, unfortunately. One was harassment in the workplace but the other was silencing people who had the courage to come forward,” said Carlson, who has since co-founded “Lift Our Voices” to advocate for change.
Carlson said, when she started at Fox, she had no idea how sweeping her contract’s non-disclosure agreement was.
“One-third of all Americans sign NDAs on day one precluding them from ever talking about anything that ever happens to them in the workplace before anything has actually happened to them. It’s crazy,” Carlson said.
Carlson, also a former anchor for 8News in Richmond, was among those behind the push for reform in the Virginia General Assembly during the 2023 session.
The legislation headed to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s desk bans pre-dispute non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements from covering up sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. It applies to current and prospective employees. The narrow bill replicates recent federal reform and doesn’t go as far as some other states.
“In the states of New Jersey, California and Washington State, NDAs are banned for all toxic workplace issues, including all forms of discrimination,” said Carlson. “That’s what we were hoping would happen in the state of Virginia.”
A broader version of the bill that included discrimination and expanded protections to former employees and independent contractors passed out of the Democrat-led Senate. It was later slimmed down during closed-door negotiations with the House.
“This bill is a step in the right direction. I think we know that we need to do better and that we can do better here in the Commonwealth,” former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who sponsored the bill, said on the House floor before voting on the conference report.
Filler-Corn’s office said, during the legislative process, Republican leadership many times deferred judgment to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the only source of opposition to the bill during public comment.
“The Chamber has talked to a number of its employment lawyers on its board and they have expressed concerns that this goes beyond federal law, that it opens new areas for litigation,” said Christine Noonan, a lobbyist who spoke on behalf of the Chamber in subcommittee. “It potentially stifles or discourages the use of settlements and invalidates material terms of prior agreements entered into by employers and employees.”
In an emailed statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson added that the Chamber does not condone sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We were pleased to work with the Virginia General Assembly to address this matter. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce supports the spirit of the legislation and wanted to ensure that if passed, it is compatible with the federal legislation already in existence,” wrote the Chamber’s Communications Manager Hannah Emerson.
The narrow version received almost unanimous support with only one “no” vote between both chambers, Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach).
“I think that a victim should be allowed to sell their silence if they want to. They shouldn’t be compelled to,” Anderson said.