Updated Nov 16, 2022 - Economy & Business

Congress passes groundbreaking bill limiting use of secret agreements in sexual harassment cases

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The U.S. House took a groundbreaking, bipartisan step Wednesday to limit the use of non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements to silence survivors of workplace sexual misconduct.

The latest: The Speak Out Act now heads to President Biden's desk after passing the House 315 -109; it had passed the Senate unanimously in September.

  • "Sometimes we'll get like one or two Republicans and call something bipartisan," Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a cosponsor, said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "This is not one of those examples."
  • This is the second #MeToo bill passed this year, and together these these bills represent "the most significant labor legislation this century," Bustos said.

Why it matters: The bill comes slightly more than five years after the resurgence of #MeToo captured the nation's attention, and demonstrates that social movement's long reach.

  • The vote Wednesday is a win for former Fox News hosts Gretchen Carlson and Julie Roginsky, whose nonprofit Lift Our voices was founded in 2019 specifically to end these kinds of secret agreements, and who pushed for the bill.
  • "The only way to end the vicious cycle of abuse is to end the vicious cycle of silence," Carlson said Wednesday.

Zoom out: NDAs attracted more public attention in 2016 when Carlson sued her boss, network president Roger Ailes, as a way to get around her own agreement. (She ultimately settled that suit and is still bound by an NDA she signed with the network. Ailes died in 2017.)

  • NDAs further exploded into public consciousness in 2017 after Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's history of sexual abuse was covered in The New York Times and The New Yorker.

The bill only applies to those agreements signed before a dispute arises  the kind of document you might agree to on your first day of work or even before you start. It also doesn't apply to other kinds of complaints — wage theft, or age or race discrimination, for example.

  • The bill doesn't make clear what counts as a "dispute." Some would argue that means a lawsuit, while to others it may just mean a worker has taken a complaint to HR.
  • Courts will have to navigate that line as Bloomberg Law noted.

Go deeper: Congress is about to curb the use of sexual harassment NDAs

This story has been updated with additional details.

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