National Partnership for Women & Families

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Sharyn Tejani, Senior Policy Counsel

From the desk of ... Sharyn Tejani

What Did You Just Sign?

October 26, 2009 | Workplace Fairness

Every day, women's rights and civil rights groups work to improve the laws that govern our lives. And several times each day, workers sign away their right to enforce those laws in court.

Workers, of course, have no choice — if they don't sign, they won't get the job or risk losing their job.

Despite this blatant imbalance of power, courts routinely enforce what workers sign, and workers who are sexually harassed, fired for their race, or refused a reasonable accommodation for their disability find out too late that they can't go to court to vindicate their rights. Instead, they have to go through a secret arbitration process where the person making the decision relies on the fact that employers hire them to hear these types of cases, the federal rules of evidence may not apply, damages that are in the statute don't have to be given, and any decision is kept secret.

But some workers have the courage to take this system public — and hopefully you have already heard the story of one of them: Jamie Leigh Jones.

In 2005, Jones, a former employee of Halliburton/KBR, was viciously assaulted, gang raped, and sexually harassed by co-workers while working for Halliburton in Iraq. After she reported the attack, Halliburton locked up Ms. Jones in a shipping container with an armed guard out front. She was only able to contact her family after convincing her guard to lend her his cell phone.

Her dad got in touch with a Republican Congressman who got her help. Upon her rescue from Iraq and her return to the States, Ms. Jones filed a lawsuit against Halliburton for the appalling harm she endured. Halliburton insisted that Ms. Jones submit her claims to forced arbitration, because when she started working for them, she had signed an agreement to not bring claims against the company in court.

Four years after the attack, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Ms. Jones' sexual assault claims could proceed to court, but that her sexual harassment claims could be forced into arbitration. So only now, four years later, a court will hear part of Ms. Jones' case. Here is the testimony she gave in front of a Senate committee this month.

Ms. Jones' case has become well known thanks to her willingness to go public — and thanks to Senator Al Franken, who is working to make sure that the Department of Defense does not spend our tax payer dollars to support companies that make their workers sign this type of agreement. See him talking about the Amendment he introduced to stop this here.

Sixty-eight Senators — including all the Republican women — voted for it. (See how your Senator voted.)

Now we're working to make sure that the Franken Amendment survives the negotiations between the House and the Senate as this legislation is reconciled, and that efforts to weaken it fail.

How can you help? Call your Representative and Senators at 202/224-3121 and tell them you support the Franken Amendment to the DOD Spending Bill because you want your tax money spent with companies that treat workers fairly. And educate yourself about the dangers of mandatory arbitration here.


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