Landmark legislation that will drastically curtail tech companies’ ability to stop employees from talking about mistreatment is headed to the governor’s desk in Washington state.
Last week, Washington legislators approved House Bill 1795 — also called the Silenced No More Act — in major victory for activists who have fought to limit non-disclosures and non-disparagement agreements.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Liz Berry (D-Seattle), makes it illegal for companies to ban employees from discussing “illegal acts of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wage and hour violations, and sexual assault.”
“This bill is about empowering workers,” said Berry in a statement last week. “It is about giving workers a voice. Despite the progress we’ve made in recent years, too many workers are still forced to sign NDAs and settlement agreements that silence them. This bill will allow all survivors of inappropriate or illegal workplace misconduct to share their experiences if they choose to do so.”
NDAs have long been common practice at many large tech companies, and often state that employees will have to repay severance money or face other financial ramifications if they violate the agreement.
“NDAs silence victims,” employment attorney Katherine Chamberlain told lawmakers last month. “NDAs cover up unlawful employment practices, NDAs interfere with our state’s long-standing goals to eliminate and prevent discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. NDAs allow illegal employment practices to continue.”
Washington state will be the second state to ban these types of gag orders; California passed its own Silenced No More Act last year. There, the legislation passed despite vocal opposition from trade groups, which argued that employees could end up getting hurt if companies decide to limit severance payments, or to forgo them altogether.
The vote in Olympia came just weeks after Google settled a high-profile lawsuit with Chelsey Glasson, a former manager who said the tech giant retaliated against her after standing up for a pregnant co-worker, then tried to force her out of her job after she became pregnant herself.
Glasson was among those who testified in support of House Bill 1795 this year. She said that after she began to document mistreatment at Google, the company served her with a “walk-away” agreement that included an NDA provision — just six days after her daughter was born.
“Companies routinely use these walk-away agreements during vulnerable moments when people are more likely to sign NDAs and don’t yet know what actions will help them recover long-term, financially, emotionally and otherwise,” Glasson said.
Cher Scarlett, a former Apple software engineer in Kirkland, Wash., also testified about how she experienced harassment at work, and that she was told she was violating her NDA when she spoke out about it. Scarlett, now a visible part of the #AppleToo movement, said she feared losing the financial security that had helped her break her family’s cycle of generational poverty .
“If you need a financial safety net to get to your next job, you trade your voice,” Scarlett said.
The soon-to-be law applies to all companies in Washington state, including Amazon and Microsoft. It goes a long way toward finishing the work started in California, where Google, Facebook and many other tech giants are based.