Former employees for Apple and Google testified Tuesday in support of a bill that would limit what Washington employers can include in non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements.
The bill, HB 1795, closely resembles the Silenced No More Act, which was passed into law in California last year. The Washington bill forbids provisions in NDAs that prevent workers from discussing "illegal acts of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wage and hour violations, and sexual assault" that they've experienced on the job. "This will ensure that those who raise complaints about inappropriate illegal behavior in the workplace can speak openly about their experiences if they choose to do so," said state representative Liz Berry, who sponsored the bill, in her opening remarks. "This bill will ensure that employers cannot silence the voices of survivors anymore."
The push to pass this legislation in Washington State was reportedly inspired by the stories of Cher Scarlett, a former Apple employee, and Chelsey Glasson, a former Google employee, both of whom testified during a hearing for the bill Tuesday.
In her testimony, Scarlett, who was among the leaders of the #AppleToo movement, talked about "experiencing terrible things" during her time at Apple, which she said she reported to the National Labor Relations Board. "I was subsequently intimidated harassed and coerced into silence," Scarlett said Tuesday. "Some managers and other departments claimed I was violating the NDA we signed and reported me to global security for leaking confidential information."
Scarlett said she was presented with a separation agreement on Oct. 15 last year, which would have prevented her from saying anything negative about the company. "I quickly learned from attorneys and others in tech that this was the norm that if you need a financial safety net to get to your next job, you trade your voice," Scarlett said in her testimony.
While Scarlett declined to sign the agreement, she recently shared a copy of it with the Securities and Exchange Commission as part of a whistleblower complaint. According to Business Insider, which reviewed the complaint, the agreement would have consigned Scarlett to a vague description of her decision to leave the company, which read, "After 18 months at Apple, I've decided it is time to move on and pursue other opportunities."
Following her testimony, Scarlett told Protocol that while the bill will be important for tech workers, "It also impacts an enormous farming industry, like much of my family in eastern Washington. This bill is imperative for ensuring we eradicate abuses that fester in tech and other industries, too."
Glasson also talked about her experience working for Google, where she said she and another woman who reported to her both faced pregnancy discrimination. Glasson's pregnancy discrimination suit against Google has been ongoing for years and is set to go to trial in April.
Glasson described having signed an NDA at Google in 2014, which prohibited her from discussing "what was loosely defined as 'Google confidential information.'" Glasson said when she began documenting her experiences and contemplated sharing them publicly, "I reflected upon that NDA I signed. Would I get fired or worse for keeping a record and sharing it with attorneys and government agencies as a vehicle for pursuing help? As intended, I was intimidated by Google's NDA."
HB 1795 would replace an existing law in Washington state that forbids NDAs which prevent workers from talking about workplace sexual assault or harassment. It also would apply retroactively, making it broader than the Silenced No More Act. Similar legislation was recently introduced in the state senate.
Apple told Protocol the company does not discuss specific employee matters, but said in a statement, “We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised."
Google did not immediately respond to Protocol's request for comment, but spokesperson Jose Castaneda previously told Protocol that while Google employees do sign confidentiality agreements, "Such confidentiality agreements do not prevent an employee or member of our extended workforce from disclosing facts and circumstances of harassment or discrimination concern."
During Tuesday's hearing, witnesses overwhelmingly spoke in support of the bill. But they weren't unanimous. Representatives for the Washington Retail Association and the Association of Washington Business both expressed concerns about the bill in their testimony. Bob Battles, director of government affairs at the Association of Washington Business, argued that the way the bill is currently written, it gives employees all the power to determine whether something is in fact illegal, and is therefore exempt from an NDA. "If an employee raises something, it's therefore illegal," Battles said. "Reasonable minds constantly differ. Litigation happens all the time where people will bring a claim and not be successful."