HR Hotline: What Does State Law Say About Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

03.12.2018
HR & Safety

Q: I heard about a recent court decision prohibiting discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation. Wasn’t that already the law in Connecticut, or did I miss something?
A: Since 1991, Section 46a-81c of Connecticut’s Fair Employment Practice Act has prohibited workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation.
Consequently, Connecticut employers should have clearly stated policies and well-established practices to prevent discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation.
However, Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination law, does not contain an explicit reference to sexual orientation as a protected class.
As a result, whether or not sexual orientation is a recognized subset of the broad category of prohibited “sex discrimination” under federal law has for years been a contested issue among the various federal courts.
On Feb. 26, 2018, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals—the federal appellate court covering Connecticut, New York, and Vermont—issued a decision clearly stating that for cases in its jurisdiction, sexual orientation discrimination is illegal under Title VII. (Like Connecticut, Vermont and New York also prohibit sexual orientation discrimination under state law.)
Since this decision conflicts with some other federal Circuit Court decisions, it is likely that the issue will land before the U.S. Supreme Court at some time in the coming years.
For now though, sexual orientation complaints in Connecticut may be pursued under state and federal law in state and federal court.

Whenever a state and federal law differ, employers must comply with the standard most protective of the worker.

This illustrates the fundamental principle that whenever a state and federal law differ, employers must comply with the standard most protective of the worker.
One of many examples of this came in 2011, when Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law was expanded to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity (transgender status)—still not recognized under federal law but now illegal in Connecticut.
Another example is the fact that under state law, Connecticut employers must pay the state minimum wage of at least $10.10, even though the federal minimum remains at $7.25.
And one more: Group insurance continuation coverage in Connecticut must be available for up to 30 months, contrasted with the federal COBRA continuation period of 18 months.
Such complications are why we should be ever grateful for the knowledge and guidance of our beloved HR professionals and employment lawyers who keep us on the right track—and out of court!

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