Victims of workplace sexual harassment or discrimination at the Minnesota Capitol — and in workplaces around the state — could find it easier to take formal action against their harassers under proposals making their way through the state House and Senate.
A bill introduced by House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, and backed by several dozen other Republican and DFL House members, would update the Minnesota Human Rights Act to expand the category of behavior that could contribute to an "intimidating, hostile or offensive" work environment. Specifically, the harassing behavior would no longer have to be considered "severe and pervasive" to be considered a violation of state law, and the House's own harassment policy.
Matt Swenson, a spokesman for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said that Dayton and Peppin were meeting Monday to discuss the proposal.
Later in the day, Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, introduced a similar bill for consideration by the Senate.
Speaking earlier Monday after a House subcommittee agreed to advance the bill, Peppin said the surge of attention to workplace harassment has made it clear that the decades-old legal standard that's in place doesn't match current thinking. While sexual harassment at work is against the law, she said many cases involving clearly inappropriate behavior have been dismissed because courts found it wasn't "severe and pervasive" enough to warrant legal action. As a result, it's been nearly impossible for many victims to challenge their harassers, she said.
"Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years ... and it's very clear the bar is too high for someone to come forward and actually have their day in court," Peppin said.
In a news release touting her bill, Housley made a similar argument.
"This is about making the law as clear as possible and standing up to say, 'Workplace harassment of any kind will not be tolerated in our state,' " she said. "If an employee feels a line has been crossed, they should know the law has their backs — and that's what this legislation does. It allows judges to consider other factors beyond the 'severe or pervasive' standard."
The House bill is one part of a package of changes proposed by a House committee set up this year to examine how the Legislature could better address sexual harassment. The push for new or revised rules arose after two high-profile harassment cases last year that led to the resignation of two state lawmakers.
The committee members are expected to continue meeting as a separate "task force" after the Legislature wraps up next month, carving out the details of new sexual harassment training and providing a formal review of House policies by December. The group will also organize and analyze the results of a survey about harassment in the House, set up a phone hotline and an e-mail system for reporting harassment and build a new website with information on making harassment complaints.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are working to ensure that harassment cases in the future will be evaluated by human resources and legal staff for that chamber — not by elected officials who could be swayed by party allegiances.
"This shouldn't be a partisan issue in any way," Peppin said. "When people bring forward these complaints, both sides should handle it as nonpartisan a way as they possibly can."
Peppin said she expects the full House will vote on the bill before it adjourns in late May.
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Monday that she supports Peppin's proposals, and is glad they are being pushed by a powerful House member.
"The benefit of having the majority leader carry it herself is having the legislative moxie to carry it through," she said.
Hortman said she hopes to work with Peppin on one issue she believes still needs attention: creating a system so people other than those who serve in or work for the Legislature — such as lobbyists, members of the media and constituents — have a way to report harassment and take legal action.
She noted that both lawmakers who resigned over harassment allegations were accused of harassment by people outside of the Legislature.