Legislative Update: States Move to Give Employees More Resources to Fight Workplace Harassment and Bullying

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The first few months of 2019 have been a busy time for state lawmakers working to combat sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. Below is a roundup of recent action in state capitals:

CALIFORNIA: All employers with five or more workers must now provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to supervisors and one hour to non-supervisor employees. Previously, the mandate only applied to employers of 50 or more. The amendment to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act was approved by the governor in the fall and took effect on New Year’s Day.

In other news, the State Senate unanimously passed a bill in April that would make it illegal to enforce dress codes or grooming policies that prohibit hairstyles historically identified with minorities, such as braids, afros and locks. The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair (CROWN) Act seeks to challenge the assumption that white styles of dress and appearance should be the template of “professionalism” while black traits are inferior. “There are still far too many cases of black employees or applicants denied promotion or employment, even terminated, because of the way they choose to wear their hair,” bill sponsor, Holly Mitchell, said on the Senate floor.

COLORADO: A bill introduced in the State Senate would create a new Office of Legislative Workplace Relations to handle sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers. The measure was crafted in the wake of a recent report that found over one-quarter of legislative workers – including elected officials, staff, lobbyists, aides and interns – have been a victim of or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. Of those, 87% declined to report the matter, with the most commonly cited reason being a fear of using the reporting process. Under current law, victims must file complaints against Senate and Assembly members with the leaders of their chambers, who then decide what punishment, if any, is warranted.

MINNESOTA: The House of Representatives passed a bill in March that would strike the state’s current definition of sexual harassment as a situation where the offender’s behavior is “severe of pervasive.” Proponents for the change contend that the language made it too difficult to sue for abuse that clearly crosses the line. The new definition would cover “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature” when: a) submission to that conduct is made a condition of employment or compensation; b) submission to or rejection of that conduct is used as a factor in decisions affecting that individual’s employment or compensation; or c) that conduct creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. The bill is now before the Senate.

NEW YORK: New York City has launched a new unit within its Commission on Human Rights to investigate an increasing number of gender-based and sexual harassment complaints in the workplace. The aim of the Gender-Based Anti-Harassment Unit is to expedite high priority cases, reduce retaliation against victims for reporting harassment, and identify widespread problems within workplaces. The Commission also announced the addition of gender identity definitions in its legal guidance regarding discrimination on the basis of gender expression, with updated terms such as transgender and intersex.

RHODE ISLAND: A pair of bills targeting workplace harassment were passed in the State Senate in April and now head to the House of Representatives for consideration. The Healthy Workplace Act of 2019 (2019-S 0090) would make it easier for workers to take legal action against employers and co-workers for bullying, harassment and other abusive behavior that may not fall into other categories that are already protected such as race, sex or sexual orientation. The legislation aims to provide legal relief for employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically or economically by deliberate exposure to abusive work environments. It would also provide legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to abusive mistreatment of employees at work.

In the same week, the Senate approved a bill (2019-S 0330) that would require organizations with four or more employees to conduct sexual harassment training, rather than the current 50 employee threshold. New employees would need to receive the training within one month of hire.

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