In CT Senate, a partisan edge to fighting workplace harassment

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

From left, Sens. Mae Flexer, Marilyn Moore, Terry Garratana, Cathy Osten and Beth Bye.

Connecticut Senate Democrats aligned themselves Tuesday with the burgeoning Me Too and Time’s Up movements by proposing a sweeping election-year bill that they say would be “the largest overhaul in modern Connecticut history of sexual harassment laws.”

In a press conference that featured five of the seven female members of the caucus, they branded the issue as a Democratic priority and outlined the “Time’s Up Act,” which would extend the criminal statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual assaults and impose new rules of how sexual harassment in the workplace must be addressed and investigated.

The Senate Democrats made no effort to include Republicans, who hold half the seats in the Senate, drawing a rebuke from a Senate GOP leader who saw the effort as more geared to re-election politics than agreeing on public policy. House Democrats noted that one of their members, Rep. Liz Linehan of Cheshire, has proposed a similar bill.

The Senate legislation, proposed in a General Assembly where no one has felt either sufficiently aggrieved or comfortable to file a harassment complaint for 15 years, would bar the use of nondisclosure agreements that have long silenced victims and protected predators.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said she does not believe the absence of complaints reflects an absence of harassment at the State Capitol, where many staffers are political appointees, reluctant to file formal complaints that may become public.

A study issued in 2016 by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem in the U.S., noting that one-third of the 90,000 complaints received the previous year included some claims of sexual harassments and estimating that three-quarters of victims refrain from filing complaints.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed 30 years earlier that plaintiffs could seek damages under the Civil Rights Act “by proving that discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment.” But the court in subsequent decisions has raised obstacles to employees holding their employers responsible for failing to protect them.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said Connecticut law further discourages complaints with tight, six-month time frames for making complaints to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunity.

“This is not right. This is not equitable,” Looney said.

The staging of the press conference as a partisan event drew criticism from Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven.

“As with any important issue facing the state of Connecticut, passing major new policies are best done, and have been done, in a bipartisan effort,” Fasano said in an emailed statement. “That is why seeing Senate Democrats today release this plan without any effort to work with the other caucuses tells me they are more focused on grabbing headlines than on actually making a difference.”

Fasano offered no opinion on the substance of the Democrats’ proposal in the email. Instead, he accused Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of endangering women by proposing to cap the number of years offenders could be kept on parole.

“If Democrats truly cared about making Connecticut safer, where is the outrage about the governor’s proposal regarding those who have committed sexual assault? Why are they silent on that issue, but vocal on others? The hypocrisy leads me to believe today’s event was more about politics then about the people of Connecticut we all want to help, support and protect.”

In a brief telephone interview, Fasano said fighting sexual harassment was not a partisan issue.

“The issue is how do you resolve it in a way that protects people but doesn’t have unintended consequences,” Fasano said. “Obviously, it’s something we should work on together.”

All four caucuses previously have agreed to review sexual harassment policies in the General Assembly, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, has instructed his caucus members and employees to take classes on preventing harassment.

“The bottom line is that if someone is uncomfortable, the behavior is unacceptable, and everyone needs to be sensitive to this, including how an organization handles it,” he said. “To further emphasize this, we have required another round of sexual harassment training for legislators and staff, and are also working with Rep. Linehan to see what should be improved statewide through legislation.”

Flexer acknowledged Linehan, who was in the audience, during the press conference. Linehan has publicly talked about being a victim of workplace sexual misconduct while she worked in radio.

The Connecticut General Assembly meets in five-month sessions in odd years, three months in even years, when all 187 members of the legislature are up for re-election. The short sessions inevitably act as a prelude to the fall campaigns.

The Democrats undoubtedly would like to campaign for re-election by touting passage of a law designed to discourage and punish sexual harassments, but a Republican vote against the measure would be of equal or greater value in the fall.

The name of the proposed “Time’s Up Act” is a nod to the organization of the same name launched by hundreds of women in Hollywood to combat systemic workplace harassment. It was an action-oriented follow up to Me Too, the hashtag employed on Twitter to stand with women who have gone public about their experience with harassment.

“With the Time’s Up and Me Too movements, we have seen cultural tides in our country are finally changing, and Connecticut must strengthen its stand against sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Flexer said.

Flexer and Sens. Beth Bye of West Hartford, Terry Gerratana of New Britain, Marilyn Moore of Bridgeport and Cathy Osten of Sprague took turns Tuesday outlining elements of the proposed legislation. The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Wednesday to draft the bill for a public hearing, the first step in the legislative process.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called on the legislature to address workplace harassment in his State of the State address, delivered on the opening day of the legislature’s session two weeks ago.

“The reality is we are long overdue for an honest reckoning over harassment in the workplace. There is an immediate need to change workplace culture – from small towns to Hollywood, from the mailroom to the boardroom, and from the jailhouse, to the statehouse, all the way up to the White House,” Malloy said. “Together, let’s pass a bill that moves this important conversation forward, because we know we can no longer wait. Time is up.”

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