Vote on anti-sexual harassment bill postponed to next week

DOVER — After an hour of discussion, a House committee agreed to postpone a vote on a bill that would specifically ban workplace sexual harassment.

With questions abounding and the main sponsor admitting the bill needs to be amended, the House Labor Committee deferred action on House Bill 360, planning to revisit it next week.

Introduced in March by Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, the bill would classify sexual harassment as an unlawful employment practice and require any employer with at least 50 employees to provide anti-sexual harassment training to all supervisors.

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.”

Rep. Keeley said in the hearing she is seeking to amend the bill to require all businesses with four or more employees to give their workers anti-harassment training.

While no one supports sexual harassment, many people who spoke in committee expressed concerns about the legislation, pointing to specific aspects such as how it impacts parent volunteers on school field trips to the more general fear the measure could reduce productivity and drive up costs for businesses.

“Once again, the legislature is proposing a bill that creates work and more expense for small business, the backbone of our economy. You guys all know that,” Janie Libby said on behalf of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce. “Small businesses don’t have HR departments. They’re going to have to hire consultants, conduct training — another burden, another unnecessary expense.”

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, took a similar stance, protesting what he described as overregulation of child-care centers.

“Now we’re getting into — and I’m not a Republican so forgive me — but we’re getting into regulation of businesses,” said Rep. Kowalko, one of the legislature’s most liberal members.

His wife is the director of Willa Road Children’s Center in Newark.

Several individuals asked questions about the impact on contractors, with confusion evident as the same question was repeated several times.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, posed a hypothetical scenario of a contractor with 10 employees who hires a subcontractor with 45 employees. Under the bill as it is currently written, the contractor would then be responsible for conducting training for all those workers.

“This is a sea change in how independent contractors are treated under labor law,” Delaware Chamber of Commerce lobbyist James DeChene told the committee.

Other concerns revolved around forcing national companies to change their anti-harassment training solely to comply with Delaware law and whether individuals hired for seasonal positions, such as the new associates Amazon employs around Christmas, would have to undergo the training.

The intent, according to House attorney Natalie Woloshin, is for the bill to only apply to individuals working in the same job for at least six months.

Lobbyist Rebecca Byrd noted the measure as written could apply to parents signing up to assist with school field trips and to volunteers at a church function, something Rep. Keeley said she will change.

While the bill would require training, it does not contain a penalty for employers who violate the mandate. The deterrence, Rep. Keeley said, is that a failure to conduct the duties spelled out in the bill opens an employer up to a lawsuit if an employee believes he or she has been sexually harassed.

“It eradicates the availability of your defense at a trial if you don’t have a training,” Ms. Woloshin explained.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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