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State Dems push for more protection against workplace sexual harassment

March 5, 2019

HARTFORD — After the General Assembly did not pass sexual harassment reforms on the heels on the #MeToo movement in 2018, Democrats renewed a push to pass new protections for victims in private workplaces.

The Labor and Public Employees Committee heard public testimony Tuesday on a bill that would increase employer liability for sexual harassment in the workplace.

The bill would prevent employers from using the fact that they have a sexual harassment policy as a defense to a harassment complaint. The bill would also prevent an employer from changing a victim’s conditions of employment without the victim’s permission and would allow victims to be awarded damages.

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The bill was supported by the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and lawmakers like Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Chesire, who shared her story of workplace sexual assault. It was opposed by the Connecticut Business Industry Association and some Republicans on the committee.

The bill reprises some ideas from last year’s “Time’s Up Act,” like amping up the information employers must share with employees on sexual harassment.

That act was touted by Democrats as “largest overhaul in the modern history of Connecticut’s sexual harassment and sexual assault laws.” A watered-down version of the bill passed the Senate, but failed to clear the House.

Last month, the Labor Committee heard testimony on another bill that revived a proposal from last year to place restrictions on the use of nondisclosure agreements in the workplace to prohibit the silencing of victims of sexual harassment. The bill is widely supported by Senate Democrats.

“For too long, women have blamed themselves or believed harassment is just something to be tolerated,” testified Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “It isn’t — and silencing all employees with the use of NDAs perpetuates the status quo.”

Some themes of the “Time’s Up Act” may appear in other bills on sexual harassment that lawmakers are still drafting. The Judiciary Committee is writing a bill backed by most Senate Democrats that will “provide for enhanced prevention of and punishment for sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

These bills are renewing debate over the balance between being business-friendly and protecting victims.

Linehan, who drafted the House bill that the Labor Committee heard testimony on Tuesday, argued that law has traditionally protected the employer, while discouraging victims from reporting their experiences.

She described how she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker 20 years ago and then was placed on paid leave for four months, while her abuser remained on the job. She said victims should have to consent to any changes made to their employment conditions and employers should be held liable for the workplace environments they create.

“I know this because I lived it,” Linehan said.

Eric Gjede, vice president of government affairs for the CBIA, worried that increasing employer liability would actually decrease companies’ prevention efforts.

“Eliminating these affirmative defenses ignores decades of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and removes a powerful incentive for employers to be responsible and proactive in responding to incidents of harassment,” he said.

Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, said he would support Linehan’s bill if lawmakers could find language that would not hold employers liable if it was proven there was no way they could have known about the harassment.

emunson@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson