After a long fight spearheaded by California tech workers and State Senator Connie Leyva, the California Legislature on Monday passed the "Silenced No More Act," which would expand workplace harassment protections for employees.
SB-331, which now heads to Governor Gavin Newsom's desk and will take effect next year if signed, would prevent the use of non-disparagement and non-disclosure clauses as part of a severance agreement following any workplace discrimination and harassment. The bill builds on an existing law also authored by Leyva and passed in the wake of the #MeToo movement that bans confidentiality agreements in cases of sexual harassment, discrimination and assault. That law, the Stand Together Against Non-Disclosures (STAND) Act, did not cover harassment related to racism, an issue that hit home for tech workers like Ifeoma Ozoma, one of the bill's co-sponsors.
A former public policy manager at Pinterest, Ozoma claims she was pushed out of the company in March 2020 and presented with a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement. She broke her NDA months later, alleging she and her Black colleagues faced racism and wage discrimination at Pinterest. She soon teamed up with Leyva, the California Employment Lawyers Association and Equal Rights Advocates to draft legislation that would cover all forms of discrimination and harassment, including racial claims.
"For me personally, I'm feeling the weight of all this because it's been a long year-and-a-half and I've worked really hard on this bill," Ozoma said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I'm more proud of it than anything else I've worked on, so I'm just really happy."
Mariko Yoshihara, legislative counsel and policy director at the California Employment Lawyers Association, told dot.LA Ozoma's story highlighted how discrimination and harassment often happen intersectionally.
"We have multiple identities and you often can't separate those different characteristics," Yoshihara said. "So for her to have an NDA that just covered race-based discrimination but she was free to talk about gender discrimination doesn't make sense because she was discriminated against because she was a Black woman, not just because she was Black."
If signed into law, the Silenced No More Act would protect workers negotiating settlements and severance following any workplace harassment. In effect, that means an employee who had signed a nondisparagement clause as a condition of a severance agreement can still speak up about unlawful conduct including harassment and discrimination, Yoshihara said.
The bill cleared passage in the State Assembly last week after the California Chamber of Commerce dropped its opposition to the bill. The business advocacy group had expressed concerns with language in the original legislation regarding the ability to keep confidential the amount of severance being offered, but those were assuaged with the amended version, according to Ashley Hoffman, policy advocate for the chamber.
Ozoma was especially sanguine about the prospect of similar legislation passing at the federal level.
"It's a pretty big first step to have 40 million people protected but as far as first steps go, I hope it lays the groundwork and provides sample text even for other states for an eventual federal bill," she said. "I believe California is a trend-setter with legislation because there are so many industries based in the state...if you can pass something with billion dollar opposition that would have waged opposition, there's no reason why you can't pass this everywhere."