ACLU of Maine executive director Alison Beyea gave the follwong comments at a press conference on February 4, 2020:
Good afternoon. My name is Alison Beyea and I’m the executive director of the ACLU of Maine. We are here today to urge Maine’s legislators to pass LD 1693, and restore access to justice for victims of workplace harassment and discrimination.
Access to the courts has long been a crucial tool for holding companies accountable to the law and the rights of their employees.
30 years ago, if an employee or group of employees faced harassment or discrimination in the workplace, they could take their case to court. If a woman faced sexual harassment by her employer, or a group of Black workers was treated differently than their white counterparts, they could sue. The lawsuit would have the effect of bringing the abuse to light, deterring future discrimination, and achieving some justice for the workers.
Today, the rise of forced arbitration agreements has largely done away with that.
Today, if a worker or group of workers is the target of unlawful discrimination or harassment, they may not have the option to sue. Instead of bringing their complaint to court, they may have to bring it to an industry arbitration board made up of lawyers with no training on the legal issues surrounding harassment.
This use of forced arbitration – in which employees knowingly or unknowingly sign away their right to sue their employers as a condition of employment – slams the courthouse doors on victims of workplace harassment and discrimination.
Arbitration lacks the procedural protections afforded by the justice system. Rather than going before a judge or a jury of one’s peers, cases in arbitration are decided by a panel of lawyers who are not required to follow legal precedent.
And unlike court cases, these proceedings are subject to strict confidentiality. Even if a victim wants to discuss their case publicly, they cannot. This secrecy thwarts public accountability for repeat harassers or the employers who have failed to stop them.
As a result, too many valid sexual harassment and other discrimination cases never see the light of day, repeat offenders are not held to account, and few survivors get true justice through this process.
Yet despite this denial of justice, the use of forced arbitration has doubled in scope since the 1990s. And it is prevalent in female dominated industries – 58 percent of female workers are subject to the practice – as well as in low-wage fields and industries dominated by women of color.
To be sure, some people may prefer arbitration to the process of litigation, and they should have the right to pursue that course if it is their preference. But they should also have the right to pursue justice in the courts.
To safeguard everyone’s rights to be treated with dignity, Maine’s lawmakers should support efforts to protect all victims of discrimination. LD 1693 would preserve access to courts for Maine workers when all other avenues have been closed off by corporations.
Legislators should take this opportunity to pry the courthouse doors open again, and ensure victims of harassment and discrimination get their day in court.