Sweeping Sexual Harassment Changes Spark Calls for Balance
Legislation making sweeping changes to Connecticut’s sexual harassment laws is headed to the state Senate following committee approval this week.
SB 132, which expands harassment prevention training requirements to businesses with as few as three employees, passed the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on a 25-16 vote April 3.
That means Connecticut businesses must train an estimated 1.3 million workers. With per employee costs ranging from $100-$150, total private sector compliance costs could exceed $130 million.
Committee member Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-New Canaan) called the bill a “small-business and jobs killer,” saying it would be more reasonable to expand training for companies with 15 or 25 employees and more.
“Businesses are going to be hurt. Mom and pop shops are going to be hurt,” O’Dea said.
Good Intentions, ‘Falls Short’
Sen. Mae Flexer (D-Killingly) said the bill was necessary as current law was “very narrow,” providing “recourse for far too many people who work in the state of Connecticut.”
“I think it is important that everyone in the workplace is trained in these issues,” she said.
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas (R-Naugatuck) noted bipartisan support for addressing workplace harassment issues, while echoing the concerns of a number of committee members about the bill’s scope and reach.
Businesses are going to be hurt. Mom and pop shops are going to be hurt.
"We have to strike a balance. This is far from that balance."
Connecticut is one of only three states that requires private sector employers to provide workplace training, mandating it for supervisors—within six months of hire or promotion—at companies with 50 or more employees.
Costs and administrative burdens aside, a more troubling component of SB 132 is the removal of certain protections for companies that strive to create a safe, harassment-free work environment.
Current state law provides affirmative defenses for companies that have a policy against sexual harassment, train their employees, properly investigate any claim of harassment, take immediate corrective action, and prevent retaliation.
The original version of SB 132 eliminated these defenses. The version approved by the committee now states that if a judge or a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities commissioner rules an employer engaged in a "pattern" of sexual harassment, the standard affirmative defenses don't apply.
In other words, if an employee harasses a colleague and the company does all the right things—has a policy in place, investigates the claim, takes corrective action, and prevents retaliation—the business faces no liability.
But if another employee later does the same thing—even if the company takes all the right steps afterwards—the business is strictly liable if a judge or CHRO commissioner decides that those two incidents comprise a pattern.
This creates a no-win situation for employers, especially those who go through incredible effort and expense to provide a safe workplace.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (D-New Haven), who introduced the bill in February, said the legislation prohibits employers from taking corrective action that would alter an accuser's employment conditions without their consent.
"Harassment undercuts hardworking individuals who deserve the same opportunities as others, and it generates real mental and economic hardship," he told the committee.
CBIA's Eric Gjede told the committee the size and speed of the requirements in SB 132 were too much for small businesses.
This legislation, as good as its intentions, falls short of getting it done correctly.
"You are asking us to provide this costly training to more than one million employees while, at the same time, incurring the cost of millions of hours of lost productivity."
Salaried Employees Issue
The bill does allow businesses to suspend without pay salaried employees who violate written workplace harassment or violence policies, as they can now do with hourly workers.
CBIA has long fought for this parity to help enforce laws already on the books and rules related to sexual harassment and violence.
If passed as currently drafted, SB 132 would become law October 1, 2018.
A similar bill, HB 5043, awaits action in the state House. That measure requires businesses with 15 or more employees to provide sexual harassment training to every employee at least once every five years.
While everyone agrees that workplace harassment prevention is good policy, it is critical that state lawmakers find the correct balance in addressing issues currently making headlines around the country.
Connecticut employers support safe work environments. Lawmakers must ensure any changes to current law do not bring severe and costly consequences for businesses, particularly smaller employers.
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