More Studies on Sexual Harassment in PA are Welcome, But Shouldn’t Delay Action

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives adopted two new resolutions to study and monitor sexual harassment in the workplace in Pennsylvania.

  • The first resolution will establish a Task Force on Harassment and Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace. The taskforce will be responsible for conducting a comprehensive review to unearth any inadequacies in current laws, regulations and policies surrounding this subject and producing a report to the General Assembly with its findings and recommendations.
  • The second resolution will direct the Joint State Government Commission (JSGC) to study the frequency of harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace in state government.

The effort to monitor the prevalence of sexual harassment in Pennsylvania workplaces is welcome, and we look forward to reviewing the results. However, these studies should not be used to delay taking immediate action on the very serious problem of sexual harassment in Pennsylvania.

We already know sexual harassment is a pervasive problem across the Commonwealth, and legislation has already been drafted and introduced that can be advanced today in order to better protect workers.

In April, Managing Attorney Terry L. Fromson shared our policy recommendations at the Pennsylvania House Committee on Labor and Industry public hearing on harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Some of the policy proposals are simple and already overdue. For example, we have known for years that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) only applies to employers with 4 or more employees. The local agency thresholds vary from 1 to 4 to more. This means some people have no statutory remedy for harassment because of geography and/or size of their employer.

Why should an employer be allowed to harass an employee if it only has 3 employees? As the state law that covers all Pennsylvanians, the PHRA’s employee threshold should be reduced to one.

Other #MeToo policy reforms that could and should be enacted today:

  • Expanding the PHRA to cover more than just employees, individuals who under the law are considered to be under the control of the employer. Independent contractors, unpaid interns and volunteers are equally if not more vulnerable to sexual harassment and should be covered.
  • Eliminate exclusions long written into the law for agricultural and domestic workers. They are rooted in explicit racial discrimination and there is no logical basis for leaving these workers unprotected.
  • Extend the time for filing complaints to afford individuals more time to consider their options.

In her testimony, Fromson emphasized that legislative reform in this area should not be limited solely to sexual harassment. Harassment based on race, ethnicity, and other protected categories are equally harmful and malicious. We must also ensure that reform efforts are victim-centered, meaning the complainants choose how to proceed and options are not chosen for them so as not to deprive a complainant of either autonomy or a remedy.

Read our recommendations for a #MeToo policy agenda in Pennsylvania here.

Regarding the second provision, we also welcome new data and information about the prevalence of sexual harassment in state government. However, we don’t need formal task force report to know that it is a serious problem, when a New York Times report detailing deeply disturbing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by a Pennsylvania state representative is just one of several additional reports on sexual harassment in the Capitol.

We thank Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) for leading an effort to improve data on sexual harassment in Pennsylvania, and call for immediate action.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

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Posted in Sexual harassment | Tagged , , ,

Allegheny County Police are Arresting Sex Workers for Possessing Condoms

Pennsylvania law classifies possessing an instrument of crime as a misdemeanor.

“Instrument of crime” generally refers to carrying a concealed firearm or other weapon with the intention to employ said weapon for criminal purposes. It also applies to unlawful body armor.

In Pittsburgh, Allegheny County police have been arresting sex workers found to possess condoms by classifying the condoms as instruments of crime.

“This is an abuse of police power. There’s no question about it,” WLP Senior Staff Attorney Susan Frietsche recently told WESA-FM. “And it’s an abuse that’s being leveled at some of the most marginalized and powerless people in our society.”

Attorneys based in the Western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project have joined a coalition of advocates, led by the local chapter of Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) to fight this abuse.

From WESA-FM:

“For decades now, we’ve really been making a concerted effort to encourage the most vulnerable and most marginal populations to practice safer sex,” PJ Sage of SWOP said. “And this is something, a public health goal, that we’ve had for some time now. It’s like a huge step backwards.”

First offense prostitution is a low level misdemeanor resulting in a summons arrest, meaning the accused remains free and reports to court at a later date. Possessing an instrument is a more serious misdemeanor that calls for immediate detention, fingerprinting and processing through a local jail.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review recently reported on a case of a woman being charged for having condoms in Allegheny County back in 2012. Advocates believe this practice targets low-income people, LGBTQ people, and people of color.

A Tribune investigation found that “police charged people with both prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime in 100 cases last year in Allegheny County. In 15 of the cases, condoms were an alleged instrument of crime. In 14 others, police seized condoms as evidence.”

Possessing condoms is evidence of following the recommendations of public health experts, who universally support using condoms to prevent unplanned pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Stay tuned for updates.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

Posted in Civil rights

WLP Testified in Opposition to HB 861, Preemption of Local Labor Protections

Today, WLP Staff Attorney Amal M. Bass testified in opposition to House Bill 861 (preemption of local laws protecting workers) before the Pennsylvania House Labor & Industry Committee. The Women’s Law Project strongly opposes HB 861, which is sponsored by Rep. Seth Groves of York County.

You can read Amal’s testimony in full here.

What is Preemption?

Preemption bills like HB 861 prohibit local governments from passing local ordinances to meet the needs and reflect the values of their own communities.

HB861 Would be Retroactive

HB 861 is even worse than a typical state preemption bill because it includes a retroactivity clause designed to strip away local protections that have already been implemented, including protections for LGBTQ workers and paid sick days ordinances that provide protections for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

HB 861 Would Nullify a Broad Range of Workplace Protections

The way it is written, HB 861 could apply to almost any local government’s attempt to protect its own workers.

HB 861 Targets Paid Sick Days in Philadelphia & Pittsburgh   

HB 861 would retroactively strip hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania workers of their right to paid sick days.

The Women’s Law Project testified in support of Philadelphia’s paid sick days ordinance, which City Council passed and the Mayor signed on February 12, 2015 after a thorough, multi-year process that drew upon the recommendations of a Task Force representing many perspectives on the issue, including employers.  The local law that resulted from this process provides forty hours of earned paid sick time in a calendar year for workers of employers with ten or more employees, and it provides unpaid sick time to workers of smaller employers.

Philadelphia’s paid sick days ordinance also provides paid leave to employees whose absence is related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. This ordinance is vital for the health and well-being of women and their families in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, giving paid sick leave to more than 200,000 workers.

In 2015, Pittsburgh joined Philadelphia in recognizing these benefits when it used its home rule authority and its authority to pass public health laws to pass a modest earned paid sick leave ordinance. The Women’s Law Project and attorneys from the Partnership for Working Families filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Pittsburgh’s paid sick days law on behalf of fifty-one organizations committed to women’s health and safety.

However, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association has challenged this local law, halting its implementation, in a lawsuit currently before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

This is typical in that special-interest groups often seek to block and stall protections from workers so that they may profit from the lack of protections. That doesn’t mean lawmakers representing hard-working constituents should allow them to succeed.

HB 861 is a Direct Attack on LBGTQ Pennsylvanians

House Bill 861 also affects discrimination laws. More than forty municipalities in Pennsylvania have local ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of many protected characteristics, including sexual orientation, which our employment laws at the state and federal levels, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, do not explicitly cover.

HB 861 is equipped with a retroactive provision that could strip protections for LGBTQ workers passed places such as Ambler Borough, Bridgeport Borough, Carlisle, Dickson City, Mount Lebanon, Kennett Square Borough, Narberth Borough, Phoenixville, Royersford, Stroudsburg, and Wilkes-Barre. All of these municipalities passed anti-discrimination laws after 2015, and therefore could trigger HB 861’s retroactive preemption. The bill could also prohibit every municipality in the state from altering or adding to their antidiscrimination provisions in the future.

Local Governments Pass Laws Protecting Workers Because the State Fails to Do So

Pennsylvania is a patchwork of worker protections in part due to the failure of the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass meaningful worker protections, despite overwhelming evidence of the need to do so. HB 861 would undo and prohibit progress at the local level, taking rights away from the citizens of Pennsylvania without filling the void with statewide legislation.

Absurdly, an argument sometimes made for preemption is that Pennsylvania’s patchwork of protections is confusing. If Pennsylvania’s patchwork of protections is a problem, it should be solved by ensuring all Pennsylvania workers are treated fairly with state-level protections, not state-level efforts to nullify local protections.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

Posted in workplace equality

Action Alert: Tell Your State Rep to Reject Rep. Turzai’s Attempt to Sabotage Help for Sexually Exploited Children  

As reported yesterday, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai is willing to sink a “safe harbor” bill designed to decriminalize and assist sexually exploited children just so he can use the Legislature to once again express his personal disapproval of Pennsylvania families who seek abortion care.

In this case, he’s targeting families in medical crisis who choose to terminate a pregnancy in the wake of a prenatal Down Syndrome diagnosis.

Unfortunately, this is the type of cynical political posturing that passes for “pro-life” in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

About the “Safe Harbor” Bill (Senate Bill 554)

Sponsored by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, advocates have been working to pass SB554 for the last four years.

Before Turzai’s sabotage, Greenleaf’s bill was written to require law enforcement to report any encounter with a minor who has been subject to sexual exploitation. The legislation also calls for the provision of safe, long-term housing, education, life-skills training, and counseling to the children who have been exploited.

Lead expert-advocates say “Safe harbor” bills such as SB554 are the most effective, victim-centered policy tools that state governments can utilize to protect child victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.    Is protecting sexually exploited children a goal of the Pennsylvania Legislature seemingly obsessed with restricting access to abortion?

The answer remains to be seen with the next vote.

The “Down Syndrome Ban” (HB2050)

If it sounds familiar to you, that’s because the Pennsylvania House already passed a bill in April with the same language as the amendment Turzai is using to sink Safe Harbor for sexually exploited children. Yes, it is unconstitutional and yes, both disability rights advocates and reproductive rights rejected the cynical attempt to divide advocates.

Advocates for Pennsylvania families did not think the Pennsylvania Legislature could not sink any lower.

And now they have.

What You Need to Do Now 

We expect a vote as early as today.

We need you to find your state Representative and contact them in any way possible and urge them to vote NO on Rep. Turzai’s amendment, and to pass the Safe Harbor bill, SB554, WITHOUT it.

Thank you for speaking up for equality and justice in Pennsylvania.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

Posted in Bad Bill Watch

Fighting the Criminalization of Pregnancy in Pennsylvania

Relentless attacks on reproductive rights are colliding with the opioid epidemic in ways that seriously threaten both civil rights and public health.

Attorneys at the Women’s Law Project just authored and filed an amicus (“friend-of-the-court”) brief in Commonwealth v. Dischman, a case in which the defendant was charged with a first-degree felony after she overdosed on opioids while pregnant. We filed the brief on behalf of 28 non-profit organizations and individuals concerned about the public health ramifications and far-reaching consequences of applying punitive sanctions against people who use drugs while pregnant.

As observed in an article in The Nation on this case: “It’s often noted that the victims of the opiate epidemic receive a degree of compassion not usually extended to drug users, but apparently that approach doesn’t extend to pregnant women.”

After delivering prematurely, defendant Kasey Dischman of Butler County went straight from the hospital to jail. Her bail was set at $500,000.

Our Argument

The relevant criminal statute has a clear nonliability provision protecting pregnant women from prosecution for conduct during pregnancy.  For that reason, the charge was dismissed by the Court of Common Pleas in Butler County, but the prosecution filed an interlocutory appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Our brief, which you can read here, supports Appellee Dischman and urges the Superior Court of Pennsylvania to affirm the order of the Court of Common Pleas dismissing the aggravated assault charge against Dischman.

We argue that interpreting Pennsylvania law to allow for the prosecution of pregnant women for aggravated assault in regard to alleged drug use has no basis in law and contradicts legislative intent.

In addition to the clear language of the statute, the lawmakers who authored the legislation repeatedly insisted the law is not intended to apply to pregnant women.

Serious Public Health Consequences

Beyond having no basis in law, prosecuting pregnant women for conduct alleged to harm their fetus undermines public health as well as maternal and fetal well-being. The practical effect of the Commonwealth’s novel reading of the relevant statute would be to drive pregnant women who use drugs out of the healthcare system and away from prenatal care.

It would also punish some pregnant women for failing to undergo or successfully complete treatment that is largely unavailable to them. According to a report issued last year by the Pennsylvania Legislature, there is a significant bed and provider shortage in Pennsylvania “despite a great demand for treatment.”

It also infringes upon a pregnant women’s privacy, and sets a precedent that could have far-reaching consequences beyond the context of drug use.

“The prosecution of Ms. Dischman represents exactly the wrong way to respond to people who use substances while pregnant,” said Women’s Law Project Fellow Margaret Zhang, who co-authored the brief. “Criminalizing the conduct deters them from seeking the specialized medical care they need to be healthy and maintain a healthy pregnancy.”

Disproportionate Negative Effect on Women of Color

It’s no coincidence that the criminalization of pregnant women’s conduct would have harshest impact on low-income women and women of color. The same populations that suffer the greatest risk of maternal and infant mortality face the worst barriers to both prenatal care and treatment for substance use disorders.

Here in Pennsylvania, Black infants are 2.4 times as likely to die before their first birthday, a finding that holds despite variations in income.

Trend: Pennsylvania is Targeting Pregnant Women with Substance Use Disorders

Attorneys at the Women’s Law Project are currently counseling another landmark civil case that will influence how we respond to pregnant women with substance use disorders.

At issue in that particular case, known as In Re: LJB, is whether or not a woman’s use of illegal drugs can constitute child abuse if, by using the illegal drugs, the woman intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused, or created a reasonable likelihood of, bodily injury to a child after birth, under Pennsylvania law.

Read more about that case here.

Just this week, the Pennsylvania House passed a bill that targets women with substance use disorders by re-installing a lifetime ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for people with certain drug convictions. Pennsylvania already had this ban, and lifted it in 2003 in part because it clearly targeted and punished low-income women, people with disabilities, and the elderly in ways that exacerbate poverty and addiction.

Learn more about House Bill 129 here, and get ready to speak up to oppose it when it goes to the Pennsylvania Senate for a vote.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

Posted in Criminalizing Pregnancy | Tagged , ,

June at the Women’s Law Project

We took a short break from sending a monthly newsletter, but now we’re back. There’s a lot going on, and we want to make sure you have every opportunity to stay up to date on our work and what’s happening in women’s and worker’s rights in Pennsylvania.

We’ve been fighting unconstitutional abortion bans in the state Legislature, and analyzing Trump’s attack on Title X, the only federal funding program devoted to family planning.

In a case called In Re: LJB, we successfully requested that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania re-consider whether a woman’s behavior while pregnant can be considered child abuse under civil law. This case may have profound implications for pregnant people, and anyone who could become pregnant.

We’re living in a time where relentless attacks on reproductive rights are colliding with an explosive opioid epidemic, a combination that threatens both civil rights and public health. In early June, we authored and filed an amicus brief in Commonwealth v. Dischman, a case in which the defendant was charged with a first-degree felony after she overdosed on opioids while pregnant. Yet, the relevant criminal statute has a clear immunity provision protecting pregnant women from prosecution for conduct during their pregnancy.

We are representing the freestanding abortion providers who have a direct interest in a Pennsylvania Right-to-Know appeal before the Office of Open Records. Jean Crocco, an employee of the extremist anti-abortion Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, is asking the Pennsylvania Health Department to turn over the names of doctors and other clinic personnel contained in the clinics’ license applications. The Department correctly withheld this information; our legal filings argue that the history of violence and disruption against abortion providers justifies the Department’s action. A decision is expected on or before June 29, 2018.

We continue to support the City of Philadelphia in defending the city’s prior-wage equal pay ordinance in a case where WLP attorneys authored and filed an amicus brief on behalf of 27 organizations. The latest update on the case is that both the City of Philadelphia and the Chamber of Commerce have appealed the split decision ruling.

On May 18, we proudly joined our friends from Raise the Wage PA at a press conference in Media, Pennsylvania to explain how raising the minimum wage is a both women’s issue and a worker’s issue, and why eliminating the tipped wage would be an effective strategy to address sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. While we’re on the topic, check out this article highlighting the work of Coalition for Health and Safety in Restaurants, a Philadelphia-based coalition working to prevent sexual harassment in restaurants.

On May 22, we co-sponsored a rally at the Capitol organized by MomsRising. We called on lawmakers to pass legislation to address sexual harassment in Pennsylvania, and highlighted the #MeToo policy agenda we developed to improve and update sexual harassment protections for workers across the state.

Good News Department

Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order addressing equal pay for state employees. The executive order:

  • No longer ask job applicants their salary history during the hiring process;
  • Base salaries on job responsibilities, position pay range, and the applicant’s job knowledge and skills;
  • Clearly explain the pay range on job postings.

Of course, we are still fighting for the state Legislature to advance a bill that would address equal pay for all Pennsylvania workers.

We were there in person at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the rights of transgender students to use restrooms and facilities that reflect their gender identity. Attorneys at the Women’s Law Project and co-counsel at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the Boyertown policy that argues that the presence of transgender students in facilities corresponding to their gender identity does not violate Title IX. Rather, Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use those facilities.

Every year, we review sex crimes files at the Philadelphia Police Department in order to improve policy accountability and address gender bias in policing sex crimes.  The annual advocate-led review is sometimes called “the Philadelphia Model” for where it originated or “the Timoney model” for John Timoney, the late police captain whose focus on reform helped initiate the project. This recent NBC10 report provides a great overview of our work’s origins and goals.

Thank You

Thank you to everyone who attended Rights to Realities, our annual spring gala in Pittsburgh! We had a record-breaking attendance, and look forward to making it even bigger next year. We appreciate your support. As a non-profit organization that does not charge for our services, we are not exaggerating when we say we couldn’t do this work without you.

Catch up on WLP in the News

Catch up on our Blog Posts

What’s Next

Look for an explainer on why the aforementioned case Commonwealth v. Dischman is so important, an action alert when #HB129, the bill that targets women, disabled people and the elderly recovering from addiction, when it heads to the Pennsylvania Senate, and lots more. Stay tuned.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

 

Posted in Monthly Newsletter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Action Alert: Stop PA From Cutting the Safety Net for Women Recovering from Addiction  

The Women’s Law Project strongly opposes House Bill 129, legislation that would impose a lifetime ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) assistance for any Pennsylvanian with an addiction that led to a drug-related felony conviction or guilty plea.

TANF is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency. Approximately 90% of the adults who receive TANF are women.

The House Health Committee passed HB129 on May 22 by a vote of 17 – 6. (See votes here.)

We expect the House to vote on HB129 as early as Tuesday, June 5.

How do we know this is a terrible idea? Because Pennsylvania already installed a version of this ban, and it was such a disaster that they repealed it.

The vast majority of people banned for life were women with children. Before 2003, Pennsylvania enforced TANF bans for certain drug-related offenses. Criminal justice and drug policy experts, together with women’s drug treatment professionals and domestic violence programs, saw from firsthand experience that this lifetime ban on public assistance sabotaged women’s recovery prospects and made the drug problem worse, not better.

With failure evident, more than 100 organizations including the District Attorney’s Association, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and women’s drug and alcohol service providers supported the bipartisan reform legislation that lifted the ban in 2003.

Now, fifteen years later, the impact would be even worse given Pennsylvania is in the throes of a full-fledged opioid addiction epidemic.

HB129 also directly contradicts the recommendations made by the same legislative body advancing it.

According to a 2016 report published by the House Majority Policy Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives:

  • In 2015, 3,383 Pennsylvanians of all kinds, from all backgrounds, died from drug overdose.
  • Despite a great demand for treatment, there is a significant “bed” and provider shortage in Pennsylvania.
  • Pennsylvania is also experiencing a shortage of qualified professionals to fill the in-demand jobs of the substance abuse treatment field.
  • In regards to treatment, most experts agreed that there are multiple pathways to recovery, and addicts need affordable access to all options.
  • Over time, money invested in prevention, intervention and treatment will result in significant savings to our criminal justice system and all levels of government.

We can’t let Pennsylvania go backward, especially when the opioid crisis is at its peak.

Take Action

Please contact your representative today and them to vote NO on HB129.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Sign up for WLP’s Action Alerts here. Follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook

We are a non-profit organization. Please consider supporting equal rights for women and girls by making a one-time donation or scheduling a monthly contribution.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,