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Murkowski proposes a government role in the #MeToo movement

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks with Anchorage Daily News staff members on May 31, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been asking a lot of questions about how people are treated in the workplace.

As chair of the Energy Committee, she has in recent months pressed officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs about sexual harassment and bullying. And this week, Murkowski unveiled new legislation — along with California Democrat Kamala Harris — to place limits and requirements on employers when it comes to managing sexual harassment.

The legislation is meant to "put companies on notice that they can no longer financially protect harassers in secret," the two senators said in a joint statement.

It is "almost a culture in certain areas, where it's just, 'Well, you know, if you decided that you're going to work in a man's world, then you should just expect that.' Well that's not right. And that's not what one should expect," Murkowski said in an interview Wednesday.

"And you shouldn't expect that in the military. You shouldn't expect that as a firefighter. You shouldn't expect that in the movie industry. You should just not expect that."

Under the bill they're calling the "EMPOWER Act," companies wouldn't be able to use nondisclosure agreements to keep employees from speaking up about sexual harassment. Companies could not require silence in the face of harassment or assault as a condition of an employment contract or a raise, and it couldn't be a required stipulation of a settlement agreement.

NDAs were used by the Weinstein Co. and Fox News to keep employees quiet amid scandals there. After dozens of women accused movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment, his company ultimately released his accusers from complying with NDAs they had signed.

Under Murkowski and Harris' legislation, companies would also have to disclose how many harassment settlements they have made, and whether that included protecting an employee who has faced repeated accusations.

The bill would also set up a confidential tip line through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to strengthen its formal complaint system. EEOC would also share information with state fair-employment agencies.

Public companies would also have to include information about settlements, judgments and aggregate settlement amounts related to workplace harassment in annual SEC filings, including whether there are repeat settlements for one individual.

Companies would no longer be able to deduct from their tax liabilities their expenses and attorney fees spent litigating workplace harassment. Funds that victims receive as part of a settlement would no longer be taxable income.

The bill also would require workplace training to educate employees about their rights.

The issue of harassment, generally, "is one that I find just really troubling, that in this day and age you can work in an environment where there is a retaliatory intimidation and in an environment that is not a healthy work environment. And that … this culture has been allowed to foster and fester. And so making sure that we're doing right within the workplaces is something that's just important to me," Murkowski said.

Murkowski said the bill is a step forward for the #MeToo movement of the past year and has been in the works for several months.

"There is momentum and a movement that we've seen around the country. So making sure that our laws are current on this as well is important," she said.

What drew her to the issue was not a single story, but rather the sheer volume of stories she heard, Murkowski said.

"And so whether it's the person who's on the fire crew out in Interior Alaska, trying to take down fire, they should not be in fear of harassment by co-workers or superiors in a situation where they're effectively putting their lives on the line."

Federal agencies have had their own share of harassment controversies in recent months.

Bryan Rice, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, resigned after six months on the job amid reports of intimidating behavior.

"It is really disconcerting to see the news reports" of ongoing investigations into alleged "widespread harassment problems within the Bureau of Indian Affairs," Murkowski said at a hearing in May, where she urged a political appointee to take control of the situation.

At a hearing on wildfire funding Wednesday, Murkowski grilled the acting Forest Service chief about what the agency is doing to manage sexual harassment issues within its ranks.

To "effectively fight fires and manage the lands, you must rid your agencies of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation," she said. "Workplace misconduct cannot be tolerated, especially on the fire lines in the field. Focus on the mission — and be professional about it — or be ready to face the consequences," she said.

Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified that the agency plans to have every employee engage in a daylong program next week to focus on understanding "that harassment, assault, bullying and retaliation are absolutely unacceptable behaviors," and what to do to respond to problems in the field and the workplace.

The Senate has also revised its rules on dealing with harassment, and both chambers of Congress have had resignations related to stories of sexual misconduct.

Alaska Rep. Don Young became dean of the House — the longest-serving member — when Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat who represented Michigan for 52 years, resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Conyers was one of nine members of Congress, including Sen. Al Franken, to lose his job over allegations related to sexual misconduct between October 2017 and May 2018.

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