HARTFORD — A push to limit non-disclosure agreements relating to workplace harassment, discrimination and assault in Connecticut is gaining momentum, as lawmakers look to address the issue in the upcoming short session.
Former Democratic Party strategist and Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky said she’s hopeful her organization’s nationwide mission to limit NDAs will be met in Connecticut with the same enthusiasm and support it did in the three other states that recently passed laws limiting the practice.
Roginsky, co-founder of the nonprofit Lift Our Voices, along with former Fox News reporter Gretchen Carlson, told CT Examiner this week that their calls several months ago to Joint Committee on Judiciary members State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, and State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, were fruitful and said both were receptive to the idea.
“They have been incredible champions on this issue. They have been thoughtful, empathetic and just great leaders,” Roginsky said. The lawmakers, Carlson, Roginsky and others held a news conference last week to discuss passing NDA legislation in Connecticut.
Roginsky and Carlson said they founded the New York City-based organization soon after they left Fox News, where they both signed NDAs — limiting what they can say publicly — in what has been described as a toxic workplace environment.
Roginsky, 50, filed a lawsuit against then-Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes in 2017, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. She left the network in June 2017 and settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money in December 2017. It was reported at the time that Roginsky had claimed Ailes offered her a permanent position on the Fox show “The Five” if she’d have sex with him and then retaliated against her when she refused.
Carlson and the network settled a similar sexual harassment claim in late 2016.
Roginsky said her organization played a big part in passing legislation in the three states that currently limit NDAs: California, New Jersey and Washington. All three passed laws in the past four years, and this year, Lift Our Voices has set its eyes on Connecticut — where Carlson lives — and New York.
Roginsky told CT Examiner that she and Carlson have repeatedly asked Fox News to release them from the NDAs both signed, but those requests are ignored.
Reports have surfaced about the alleged toxic workplace for women at Fox News under Ailes’ leadership, but Roginsky and Calrson said they’ve been banned from discussing them due to the NDAs.
“Gretchen and I said that we are going to make sure that nobody else has to go through what we went through,” Roginsky said. “We might not be able to change it for ourselves, but it’s not about us. It’s about making sure that other women and men don’t go through what we went through. So, we are changing laws one state at a time.”
In addition to California, New Jersey and Washington, Roginsky’s nonprofit played a part in federal legislation that President Joe Biden signed in December 2022. The so-called Speak Out Act restricts how NDAs can be enforced federally and applies to both non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements.
Lift Our Voices estimates that one-third of the workers in the United States have signed an NDA either at the beginning of their employment or during the course of their employment.
Roginsky and advocates for NDA limitations note that their goal is not to permit the disclosure of trade secrets, marketing strategies, a company’s financial information and proprietary information.
Roginsky said she has spoken to “thousands” of people, primarily women, who are negatively impacted by NDAs when it comes to workplace harassment.
“The vast majority are women and women of color are impacted at higher rates,” she said. “The more disenfranchised you are in society, the more prone you are to be discriminated against at work or face workplace toxicity.”
Roginsky said restaurant employees, retail workers and those in the home health care industry are the most vulnerable to such agreements.
“These are people [in the home health care industry] that clean bedpans and care for the elderly,” she said. “These are people who make minimum wage or maybe slightly above. They are typically women. So, if you think about who is being silenced in the workplace, it is a woman cleaning bedpans for $13 an hour. That is wrong.”
Fox News’ Senior Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications Irena Briganti did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson with the company later contacted CT Examiner to decline an opportunity to respond.
Flexer, vice chair of the 37-member Joint Committee on Judiciary, told CT Examiner that she expects to bring the bill up for a vote soon after the short session starts on Feb. 7. Judiciary, she said, would be the only committee to hear comments on the issue before it goes to both chambers for a vote.
Flexer plans to hear from all stakeholders, including those directly impacted by NDAs, as well as the business community and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. Flexer also said she has spoken to numerous women claiming to have been silenced with regard to assault and harassment solely because of NDAs.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of women around workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, in particular,” she said. “I can’t say all of them said it, but a lot of them said the NDA issue was their number one stumbling block.”
Blumenthal told CT Examiner this week that, if passed in Connecticut, “they [victims] will be able to tell the story of their experience and they won’t be silenced.”
A bill banning NDAs when it came to workplace harassment, discrimination and assault almost passed in the state legislature in 2022. The law that ultimately passed strengthened protections related to domestic violence, Flexer said, but provisions related to NDAs were removed at the last minute.
“As the bill got closer to final passage, some people who purported to represent business interests expressed their concerns,” and then the provision on NDAs was scrapped, she said.
The bill being pushed forward by Flexer and Blumenthal appears to have bipartisan support, as Republican legislators and the CBIA say they can support such a measure if it’s limited in scope.
State Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, told CT Examiner he needs to see the details of the bill before he gives his stamp of approval. But if a bill is limited to harassment, discrimination and assault, Ackert said, he’d support it.
“I can’t imagine a company coming in and saying, ‘Well, we really want to protect our discrimination,’” he said, while acknowledging “there are those who will say it’s a contract between two parties and that we should step away.”
Ashley Zane, CBIAs senior public policy associate, told CT Examiner that the proposed legislation is “on the radar” of many businesses she represents in the state. The CBIA has more than 4,000 members in Connecticut.
“They are definitely concerned,” Zane said. “Their first question to me is who will this affect and is there a cap size on the business. So again, my response is that we will have to wait and see what the language is. … The devil is in the details.”
Jamie Sullivan, an attorney with Logan, Vance, Sullivan & Kores, LLP in Torrington, said he’s represented more than four dozen people and victims of workplace harassment who have signed NDAs.
Sullivan said the proposal being pushed in Connecticut is “a good thing” and that NDAs related to harassment and discrimination “prevents light being shed on troublesome behavior.”
He pointed to former film producer Harvey Weinstein as a prime example.
“You had guys like Weinstein that abused NDAs completely,” Sullivan said. “It allowed his behavior to continue because he would just buy off these claims with the NDA. Finally, during the #MeToo movement, people said, ‘To the hell with this, I’m going to go public.’’’
This story has been updated to add that a spokesperson with the company declined to comment