Bill seeks to ban suggestive comments in workplaces

DOVER — In the wake of an increased nationwide focus on sexual harassment, Delaware lawmakers recently filed legislation to forbid suggestive comments and behavior in the workplace and ensure businesses have policies to prevent and punish unwanted advances.

Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, introduced at the end of March a bill that would classify sexual harassment as an unlawful employment practice and would require any employer with at least 50 employees to provide anti-sexual harassment training to all its supervisors.

“As we have seen across the country — no one is immune to sexual harassment. It festers in every employment subsector, from health care to hospitality, and negatively impacts workers who are just trying to make a living for their families,” Rep. Keeley said in a statement.

“Harassment has been hidden and commonplace for far too long, but there is a major culture shift underway. We need to continue on that momentum with this legislation. Education is key to preventing and identifying harassment, and helping to alert people of their options to raise concerns.”

The measure offers a relatively broad description of sexual harassment, defining it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

If the proposal passes, all employers — companies, nonprofits and state entities — with at least 50 workers, including interns and volunteers, would be mandated to give all “supervisory employees” two hours of anti-sexual harassment training. Such training would have to take place within six months of employees assuming supervisory positions and be renewed every two years.

The measure specifies an employer could be held responsible for sexual harassment when it “knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”

Times have changed, and behavior that would have been appropriate 50 years ago — such as someone “walking into the office and saying, ‘Hey hon, hey darling, that dress looks great’ — is no longer acceptable, Rep. Keeley said.

She said the measure sets a floor of 50 employees to avoid burdening small businesses, such as mom-and-pop stores, which may only employ family members. Some federal requirements use the same number, applying only to businesses with 50 or more employees, she noted.

But the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce has some concerns over the bill, and its members are reviewing it and contemplating possible suggested changes.

Noting many companies already have policies against harassment, James DeChene, the organization’s lobbyist, questioned if the proposal would create more issues than it solves.

“By and large, the vast majority of businesses know what the right and wrong is vis a vis sexual harassment and especially in this atmosphere of heightened awareness of it are certainly aware,” he said.

While he specifically noted the chamber does not see the proposal as a “burden,” the organization does have questions about how companies would be impacted in certain circumstances. Some businesses currently offer one hour of training and are unsure how they would fill a second hour, and exactly how companies that already provide training would be impacted by the measure is unclear, Mr. DeChene said.

Businesses may also want to see the informational sheet on sexual harassment that the Department of Labor would be responsible for drawing up attached to other papers, such as documents on the rights of employees with disabilities and on the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The paper would offer a definition of sexual harassment, examples of such misconduct, what employees who feel they have been harassed can do and ways to contact the Department of Labor.

While the bill would not require employers to post the sheet, it would mandate the department mail copies to every employer who requests it.

“For far too long, sexual harassment has been treated as a fact of life,” co-sponsor Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said in a statement. “The reality is that harassment isn’t just degrading, insulting, and loutish — it also feeds a dangerous and oppressive culture that objectifies people, cheapens our standards of behavior and can lead to more severe and threatening behavior.

“Society is finally coming to understand just how common this problem is, and how taboo it ought to be in the workplace and elsewhere. It’s time for our laws to reflect that evolution.”

The bill is in the House Labor Committee.

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