As limelight dims on #MeToo, some worry
Will Florida leaders take on sexual harassment measures this year?
TALLAHASSEE – Prompted by salacious headlines generated within their own chambers and the #MeToo movement, lawmakers considered a bill last year to increase penalties for sexual harassment in state government and provide standards for reporting it.
But amid a disagreement between House and Senate leaders in the last days of the legislative session, the bill died.
Now, with the issue out of the limelight, some supporters of strengthening the laws worry the issue will fade from the agenda.
“Obviously our nation had a reckoning with the #MeToo movement ... and yet we have yet to see true systematic change,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “We have yet to address in this (Legislature) the policies that truly protect the experience of interns, staff, lobbyists and lawmakers.”
Eskamani is sponsoring a bill that would tackle harassment in all workplaces in the state, not just in government. Her measure would direct the Florida Commission on Human Relations, a board that handles civil rights and workplace discrimination complaints, to set up standards and training for sexual harassment prevention, including creation of complaint forms and a rundown of victims’ rights.
“If a business already has something that’s in place and it exceeds those standards, fantastic,” Eskamani said. “Our goal with this is not to burden businesses but to really again create that culture of safety security and accountability.”
Sen. Lauren a survivor Book, D-Plantation, of sexual assault
Open Mon-Fri 9:30am to 5:00pm Saturday 10:00am to 3:00pm when she was a child, sponsored the bill last year regarding state agencies. A similar House version passed through that chamber but included a series of ethics provisions that Senate leaders objected to, killing the measure in the final week.
This year she’s sponsoring a bill to set up a task force to review rules and laws surrounding reporting complaints of sexual harassment, victims’ services, investigations, accountability for offenders and laws in other states.
Amid the #MeToo revelations last year, there were 13 states passed new measures related to preventing sexual harassment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Another measure from Book would require state colleges and universities to include a notation on student transcripts if he or she were dismissed from school for sexual misconduct.
But it’s unclear how far the legislation will go this year.
Florida experienced its own scandals last year, including the resignations of Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Clemens.
In Clemens’ case, an affair with a lobbyist was made public, forcing his ouster. Latvala was accused by six women — two of them publicly — of sexual harassment over more than a decade.
He resigned and the Senate also later paid $900,000 to settle a complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from Rachel Perrin Rogers, a former Senate staffer and one of the accusers, who alleged she was retaliated against after coming forward with her complaints.
The Senate updated its sexual harassment training and reporting procedures, which leaders in both chambers point to as progress. But they haven’t made a commitment to passing a bill.
“Over the last year, the Senate has taken many steps to improve the culture of our workplace, including updating both our rules and personnel policies and adding additional training in preventing workplace harassment, active bystander intervention, avoiding retaliation, and diversity and inclusion,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton,in a statement. “These important steps were taken to ensure employees and visitors are able to conduct business and fully participate in the legislative process in an environment that is safe and free from any type of harassment.”
House Speaker Jose Oliva stressed he has a “zero tolerance” policy in his chamber but made no guarantees about which legislation would gain traction.
“There is an interest among members to take another look at addressing any unresolved issues,” said Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. “It’s difficult to predict which member’s bill will move along the process or whether the House would work with the Senate bill. But, regardless, the House was the first to strengthen sexual harassment rules and penalties two years ago, and the speaker’s zero tolerance policy remains the law in the Florida House.”
Eskamani said she’s still hopeful something will pass this time around.
“Part of our effort in even sponsoring this bill is to keep it in everyone’s radar that the problem has not been solved yet,” Eskamani said. “And if we really want to build a state that prioritizes the experiences of all Floridians, but especially women and girls, we have to get this right.’’