Courtesy of CT-N
Rep. Thomas O’Dea (Courtesy of CT-N)

HARTFORD, CT — A sweeping bill drafted to prevent sexual harassment in the private sector and in state government was forwarded by the Judiciary Committee to the state Senate Tuesday.

The bill, which would apply to any businesses with three or more employees and all of state government, reforms sexual harassment mandates and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities process.

It passed the committee 25-16 with some Republican support. All of those opposed to the legislation were Republicans.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he knows Republican leadership is working with Democratic leadership on the legislation, but he’s not sure it necessarily works.

“I have no problem trying to tighten up our laws in this area,” Kissel said. However, he said that adding training requirements for businesses with as few as three employees, down from 50, is significant.

Under current law, only employers with 50 or more employees must provide training on sexual harassment, and only to supervisors. Under the bill, the CHRO would be authorized to require all employers with three or more employees to provide training to all employees, not only supervisors.

“Businesses are going to be hurt. Mom and pop shops are going to be hurt,” Rep. Thomas O’Dea, R-New Canaan, said.

O’Dea, who practices employment law, said there’s some things in the bill that make sense like allowing for a victim of sexual assault in the workplace to file two years after an event, as opposed to the current six months.

However, there are concerns about language in the bill that would also allow CHRO to promote a person as part of the complaint resolution process. There are also concerns about damages for companies that are frequently required to respond to CHRO complaints.

In 2017, CHRO received 2,490 new complaints and of those new complaints, more than two-thirds, over 1,800, were about employment discrimination while 158 were about sexual harassment. The sexual harassment complaints are trending significantly upward on a year over year basis, with the last three months of 2017 seeing a 37 percent increase in filed complaints over the last quarter of 2016.

O’Dea said the legislation would cost a typical business, even if they do everything right. He said currently it costs about $125,000 to litigate through the discovery phase. If the business is able to win then it might cost an additional $10,000 to $20,000.

“If you don’t win you could be looking at $200,000 to try one of these cases,” O’Dea said. “Now on top of that we’ve got punitive damages up to $50,000.”

He said this will put some employers out of business. He said the state may have just celebrated the recovery of all the private sector jobs it lost in 2008, but it was the last state to do that.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said as an employer all of these laws make it difficult.

“It really is the wrong message,” Candelora said. “Everyone wants to clamp down on sexual harassment … but a bill in this condition rises to level of recklessness.”

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said the legislature has to strike the right balance.

“This is far from that balance,” Rebimbas said.

Sen. Mae Flexer,D-Killingly, said she hopes they can come together and work to make this legislation better.

She said victims of these crimes don’t come forward as quickly as they do for many other crimes and there tends to be a lot of “victim blaming.”

“I think it is important that everyone in the workplace is trained in these issues,” Flexer said. “We need to make sure everyone understands our current laws on sexual harassment.”

As far as changes to criminal laws involving sexual assault, Flexer said there are 26 states that have no statute of limitations.

She said the legislation only applies to felony sexual assault crimes and she asked her colleagues to remember the victims of these crimes. She said many of the victims in high-profile sexual assault cases against Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein would not have been able to seek justice if the crime was committed in Connecticut. She said some of the accusations went back decades.

“We have seen sexual harassment exposed across all types of industries and all levels of government, and have learned the heartbreaking stories of so many victims,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said. “Today, marks an important step toward overhauling Connecticut’s sexual harassment and sexual assault laws. I applaud the Judiciary Committee for its approval of the Time’s Up Act, and urge its swift passage in both chambers of the General Assembly.”