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Democrats Are Trying to Make It Easier for People to Take Their Employers to Court

Megan Leonhardt
An end to mandatory arbitration?

What happens if you get into a legal dispute with your employer? Chances are good you’ve signed away your right to take the company to court.

But Congressional Democrats are fighting to change that, introducing a legislative package on Tuesday that would allow millions of workers to sue their employer when it comes to issues around sexual harassment and civil liberties.

Led by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced (and in some cases, re-introduced) six bills—including the Arbitration Fairness Act and the Mandatory Arbitration Transparency Act —that would curtail employers’ use of mandatory arbitration.

Unlike the federal court system, mandatory arbitration forces participants to settle disputes privately, and in many cases, on an individual basis. These venues, such as the American Arbitration Association, generally do not publish the decision or details of the case, making it difficult to track when companies have systemic problems like gender discrimination or unfair pay policies.

“From nursing home contracts to cell phone contracts, too often big corporations use fine print to restrict Americans’ access to justice,” Franken tweeted. “Consumers and workers are forced into an arbitration system where corporations can write the rules. Everything can be done in secret.”

Mandatory arbitration is especially perilous when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, says Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who blew the whistle on Roger Aisles’ behavior last fall.

“Sexual harassment remains pervasive in our culture,” Carlson said Tuesday during a press conference. She added that while arbitration is promoted as being quicker and cheaper than filing a lawsuit in court, it also effectively silences millions of women who may come forward to report issues if they knew they weren’t alone.

“By forcing women to be silent about illegal and abusive behavior which causes them much pain, in many case, the employer is able to leave the abuser in the workplace to harass again,” she added.

Veterans are also vulnerable when it comes to workplace disputes. That’s why Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced the Justice for Servicemembers Act, which would prevent employers from requiring reservists and veterans into arbitration when they’re fighting employment discrimination.

Navy reservist Kevin Ziober found this out the hard way when his employer fired him in 2012 after he was deployed to Afghanistan. When he sued the company, his employer forced him into arbitration based on a clause in his employment contract.

“No service member who is asked to serve their country should have to worry about fighting for their job when they return home from war,” Ziobar said at Tuesday’s press conference.

This is not the first time lawmakers have attempted to curb companies’ use of arbitration. Franken, as well as others, have introduced bills in previous Congresses that have not gone anywhere. Additionally, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services have also attempted to tackle mandatory arbitration when it comes to financial services and nursing homes, respectively.