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Co-Founder Of 'Time's Up' Legal Defense Fund Reflects On First Year Of Action


One year ago today, a full-page letter appeared in The New York Times. It was a response to MeToo and began, dear sisters. It was the start of the Time's Up campaign, founded to fight workplace inequality through the legal system. Since then, multiple states have passed laws to combat sexual harassment, including California. New laws go into effect there today.

Earlier, I spoke with Fatima Goss Graves, co-founder of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund. I asked her on this anniversary why these new laws designed to protect workers' rights are so important.

FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: One of the things that we know is that employers use things like arbitration requirements to prevent workers from accessing justice and that those requirements come as a mere condition of employment before anything terrible has ever happened to you. So doing away with that requirement will be critical.

People will be able to choose the pathway that they want for justice. People will be able to ensure that the harassment and violence that they faced doesn't stay in the shadows. And people will be able to push their employers to be better.

CORNISH: So it's the sense that the employers won't have the option to basically bury an allegation by buying off a victim.

GRAVES: One of the things we know is that both arbitration agreements and non-disclosure agreements have been used to keep harassment and violence in the dark, have been used to silence employees. You might think that you are the only one, even though there have been 10 other people who have had very similar experiences. That is going away, and it's going to be important that that goes away.

CORNISH: Looking back on last year, do you think these new laws will make a difference?

GRAVES: When I think about how much has changed in this last year, there's certainly been cultural change. But there have also been a lot of important policy changes. Over 11 states actually changed their laws in some way this year. We aren't done even in those states. And there were over 100 bills introduced in state and local legislatures. So people understood that this was both a longstanding problem but one that they had to get right.

CORNISH: In the meantime, have you gotten a lot of phone calls? Do you think that there are more women out there with more stories to tell?

GRAVES: There is no question that there are people out there who need help and who have stories to tell. We have heard from 4,000 people at the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund over the last year. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, so we really are just getting started.

CORNISH: What kinds of issues are these callers bringing to you?

GRAVES: We hear from people who've experienced harassment in nearly every setting in over 60 different sectors. Sometimes we hear from people who've experienced harassment, and unfortunately, they have no rights because they are way past the statute of limitations, and it took too long to come forward. They have no rights because they are either an independent contractor, or an intern or some other category that isn't covered by federal law and isn't covered in their state, or they have no rights because they work for a very small employer.

Well, if you were a domestic worker, or you're working for a small business, and you are experiencing harassment or violence at work, you still deserve to be able to work with safety and dignity. These are the types of things that we hear from - at the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund all the time. And these are the types of things that we're counting on our policymakers to fix.

CORNISH: When you talk about fixes, what are some other kinds of legislation or policy changes you think could make a difference, given the kinds of calls you've been getting?

GRAVES: Well, certainly we have to make sure we make harassment less secret. So that is the NDAs. That's the arbitration agreements. We need to look at changing our statute of limitations, period. Right now, a year or two years can be too long for many people.

CORNISH: Have you had pushback from employers, businesses, so to speak? And is there an argument from them that says, look, we also need legal protections?

GRAVES: One of the things that's interesting about this moment is that our culture is dramatically outpacing our laws, and businesses know that. Businesses actually - some of them have been making these changes on their own. We've seen some companies just announce that they're doing away with arbitration rules. They're doing away with NDA requirements. They're looking to train their workers and desperate, I think, in some cases for best practices. So they know that change has already come culturally. What hasn't caught up is our laws.

CORNISH: Finally, what's your response to people who have talked about the idea of a backlash? Because often you hear the phrase that men who are publicly accused of sexual misconduct aren't getting, quote, unquote, "due process." And I use that term because that's, like, a legal term (laughter) that people are using in a cultural conversation.

GRAVES: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: Do you think that that is going on? Do you think it's affecting the ability of people to come forward?

GRAVES: One of the things that's interesting about this moment is the cultural change that is happening, it can seem unsettling, right? For many, many years, conduct that was totally inappropriate, conduct that was actually illegal already, went unchecked. And that shift is going to be uncomfortable for everyone, for the institutions, for all of the individuals involved.

CORNISH: Fatima Goss Graves is president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center. Thank you for coming in.

GRAVES: So glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 31, 2018 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous headline and Web introduction to this story incorrectly identified Fatima Goss Graves as the co-founder of the Time's Up campaign. She is the co-founder of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund.