Workplace harassment bill would change standard of proof

Workplace harassment bill would change standard of proof

Measure adds references to sexual, discriminatory behavior

| Published:
Will Jawando

Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando proposed a bill that would change the standard of proof for workplace harassment.

Photo from Montgomery County

A proposed change to Montgomery County’s workplace harassment law would update what one council member says is an unreasonably high standard for victims to prove sexual and discriminatory harassment.

The legislation would define and prohibit discriminatory and sexual harassment in both public and private workplaces across the county. It would also lower the standard for action to be taken against harassment.

Currently, harassment has to reach the standard of “severe and pervasive” for action to be taken. The standard has developed through case law since there is no codified definition for discriminatory and sexual harassment, said County Council Member Will Jawando, who proposed the bill at Tuesday’s council session.

The new law would change the standard to any harassment “more than a petty slight, trivial inconvenience, or minor annoyance.”

“We’ve also come into contact with some actual cases from some residents here in Montgomery County and in Maryland who have had their cases thrown out because they didn’t meet this high standard,” he said.

Jawando said an attorney in the county who handles workplace harassment cases brought the law’s “standard” issue to his attention.

Jawando said his past and present work in civil rights added to his interest in tackling a change in the law.

“It’s a huge pervasive issue and our laws have not caught up to it,” he said. “That’s part of the culture change that’s needed to make sure there are actually repercussions.”

Having a high standard for harassment causes many people to lose lawsuits or even be discouraged from filing them, he said.

“This is not OK behavior. It’s never OK and our law needs to recognize that,” he said.

Over several months, Jawando has worked with several advocacy and women’s groups, as well as domestic violence groups. Those include the Montgomery County Commission for Women and the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.

He expects that some women from the groups will share their experiences with the council during the public hearing on the bill, scheduled for April 14.

If public health concerns from the coronavirus continue, Jawando said, the public hearing and vote will most likely be pushed back, so the women could come in person when the council building is open to the public again.

“I want people to hear from them — for those who are willing to come forward and talk about why it’s a real issue,” he said. “It’s not something that’s abstract.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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