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Dozens of bills signed into law, including on sexual harassment, equal pay and guns

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The halls of the state Capitol bustled with people on Wednesday celebrating an array of new bills being signed into law.

In all, 47 bills got signed Wednesday. And out of that stack, there was a package of new laws promising to change women's lives.

“It's incredible to see it all pass -- 60-day (legislative) session -- I can’t get over it. My head still spins,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines.

Starting this year, under the new law, most health plans in the state that cover maternity care will also have to cover abortion services.

Senate Bill 6219, or The Reproductive Parity, sponsored by state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, will also require most health plans to cover all types of contraceptives without cost-sharing.

Equal pay was also signed into law.

House Bill 1506, sponsored by state Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, calls for workplaces to achieve gender pay equity.

Supporters say women now have a louder voice if they feel they are being paid less because they are a woman.

“When you are talking about merit, encouraging people to be successful in the workplace, totally fine, so long as women are not treated differently because she is a woman,” said Rebecca Johnson, who is with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 union.

Johnson lobbied for equal pay, along with a number of other bills dealing with sexual harassment.

In the year of the #Metoo movement, Keiser was fighting against employers that try to stop employees from going public with cases of sexual harassment and assault.

“Women end up signing the non-disclosure agreement, leaving the job, the perpetrator stays in the job or gets promoted,” Keiser said.

Keiser was behind three separate bills -- now laws -- that target sexual harassment.

One of the new laws now makes it illegal for companies to make new employees sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent workers from talking about sexual harassment or assault.

Non-disclosures would still be allowed if survivors want it or need it for settlements.

Under state Sen. David Frockt's SB 6068, employers also can’t hide behind non-disclosures in court.

“None of those would be permissible in Washington law, in litigation, with the bill we just passed,” Frockt said.

Another law now will also preserve the right of employees who are under contract to file a complaint or lawsuit outside the company. Some employers require workers under contract to use arbitrators within their own business to discuss sexual harassment complaints.

Another law sponsored by Keiser will require the state Department of Labor & Industries to publish a model policy dealing with sexual harassment so companies can use it as a workplace example. The model policy is to be published by Jan. 30.

Besides sexual harassment and equal pay, one gun measure got signed.

“Suicides account for nearly 80% of all firearm deaths,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.

And that's why Washington is now the first state to allow people struggling with mental illness or depression to voluntarily give up their own firearms and prevent themselves from buying any guns in the future, at least temporarily.

“It's an experiment though, I mean we should be honest,” state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said.

Pederson, who sponsored the measure, believes it could make a difference in saving lives.

Freedom of speech is another issue that came up on Wednesday.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, is behind a law that now extends the freedom of the press to student journalists.

Fain says some colleges and high schools limit what topics student journalists can publicize.

That is no longer the case as long as the information is not libelous or illegal.

“Allows young journalists to express their art and talent in a way that is uncensored and free from political influence,” Fain said.

Fern Valentine, a former journalism teacher, has been lobbying the Legislature to extend the rights to students for the past 26 years.

“That’s why they called it the 'zombie bill' because it kept coming back,” Valentine said.

Student journalists from various colleges came out to support the signing of the bill into law.