Get behind bills that would further women’s progress in Illinois
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All the shoutouts on social media last week about International Women’s Day were nice, of course, but how about we all — men and women — push for the legislative changes we need to truly protect, honor and respect women?
We’ve come a long way since the 1950s and in the short span since #MeToo took off, but we still have a long way to go. An index released by the World Bank analyzed how a country’s laws affect women in their working lives. It showed a bit of progress worldwide, but the United States’ score was flat compared with a decade ago.
In Illinois, there are lawmakers working to achieve a series of improvements. State Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat, last year co-chaired a government task force on sexual harassment with state Sen. Jil Tracy, a Quincy Republican. Bush also worked on a panel that looked at issues of harassment and equality within the political parties. She and some of her colleagues now are making a concerted effort to translate what they heard into legal protections.
“It’s really time that legislation started catching up to the cultural shift that’s happening out there,” Bush said in an interview.
She said she and others intend to push legislation aimed at improvements for the private sector in the current legislative session.
Here’s a look at some of what’s in the works:
Senate Bill 1829, an omnibus proposal dubbed the Workplace Transparency Act, attempts to ensure any worker who experiences sexual harassment has protection under Illinois law. It would require all employers to regularly offer harassment prevention training to be developed by the state’s human rights department, or something that exceeds that training. It prevents employers from asking employees or applicants to sign non-disclosure or similar agreements to cover up harassment or discrimination. It broadens the definition of sexual harassment to include anything done to someone based on “an individual’s actual or perceived sex or gender.” It adds long-overdue protections for independent contractors, a growing segment of the work force in this age of the gig economy, Bush noted. The bill also prohibits NDAs for low-wage workers, institutes a Sunshine in Litigation Act to prevent a court from entering an order that would conceal a public hazard, requires large employers to disclose sexual harassment settlements, and allows victims of harassment or sexual violence to take unpaid leave from work to aid in recovery.
“We mean to get this out there,” Bush said. “We think it’s really important that employees are protected and employers want to protect them.”
SB 1588, cosponsored by several black and Latino lawmakers, creates the offense of violating a sexual harassment no-contact order. SB 1875, sponsored by Tracy, will create the required companion sexual harassment no-contact order that judges can grant.
SB 75, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Sen. Ram Villivalam, requires hotels and casinos to provide panic buttons to staff and to provide anti-harassment policies. Bush said the hotel and casino industry has been helpful in the development of the legislation. It, too, already has several cosponsors.
The Senate task force heard testimony about harassment that occurred at Ford Motor Co., and, as a result, state Sen. John Curran, a Woodridge Republican, is sponsoring with Bush SB 1877, a bill that would ban a union from designating the same representative to a victim as it does to an accused perpetrator of sexual harassment in any disciplinary matters.
Last year, Bush and a majority of senators pushed through legislation that prevented the Legislative Inspector General from having to seek permission from lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission in order to investigate sexual harassment claims against lawmakers.
This year, Bush is sponsoring SB 74, which will allow the legislative inspector general to launch any type of investigation she or he deems appropriate without first having to get permission from the lawmakers’ commission. It’s common sense and long overdue.
Bush also has filed SB 31, which will make the immediate personal staff of elected officials subject to sexual harassment laws and the state’s human rights act. Currently, they are exempt.
All of these proposals will help protect women and men wherever they might work, and will go a long way toward catching up Illinois to where it should be when it comes to equal protection and respect in the workplace. But winning approval of these proposals still will take plenty of work and negotiation. The path to enactment will be made easier if Illinoisans voice their support.
“We intend to keep pushing,” Bush said. “Just because the (task force) report came out doesn’t mean the work is done. It’s my plan to keep pushing on this even if it takes years to get done. … Everyone has a right not to be harassed and have a civil remedy and a process in place and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for political and government reforms.
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