Congress should set the standard in being a good employer

The past year has provided countless examples of the ways in which our nation’s labor and employment laws fail workers. From the #MeToo social media campaign that helped expose that for many women sexual harassment is a daily fact of life in the workplace to a recent report revealing that the vast majority (74 percent) of Uber and Lyft drivers earn less than the minimum wage in their state, it is clear that American workers need policymakers to act to reform the current system of worker protections. That is why stories like the one in Vox today that some congressional lawmakers require unpaid interns to sign broad nondisclosure agreements that may discourage them from speaking out if they experience harassment or encounter other workplace issues are so troubling. How can we expect our elected representatives to legislate effective worker protection measures when they themselves adopt exploitative employment practices?

Congress has a long history of exempting itself from workplace protection measures. When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, Congress exempted itself from coverage. When the Civil Rights Act, including Title VII which protected workers from employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, was signed into law, Congress again exempted itself from these protections. It was not until 1995 that Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, finally extending workplace protections to congressional staff. However, recent reports of congressional settlements surrounding harassment claims have shown that Congress is not holding itself accountable for workplace protections.

It is no wonder that working people in this country have grown distrustful and frustrated by a Congress more inclined to guard its own interests than ensure workers have the protections they need. At a time when working people face increasing challenges to their ability to enforce their rights through the use of mandatory arbitration agreements and class and collective action waivers, Congress should at the very least adopt policies that empower workers to speak up when they experience a violation of basic labor and employment protections. Nondisclosure agreements can make workers—particularly unpaid interns who by virtue of their unpaid status work in a legal void because most workplace protections are extended based on “employee” status they lack—less likely to report harassment. And, while some congressional offices argue that nondisclosure agreements are needed to protect constituent information, there are ways to protect this information—such as drafting narrowly tailored agreements to do just that and only that—as opposed to using sweeping language that may intimidate workers from speaking out when they experience harassment. Congress may lack the votes necessary for meaningful reform of labor and employment laws, but they can at the very least act as good employers and reform their own house.