The Minnesota Legislature was hit hard last fall when complaints about work-related sexual harassment sparked the #MeToo movement and led to two resignations: DFL Sen. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center.
That backdrop makes it fitting that the Legislature is in the vanguard among states in easing the way for victims of harassment in any employment setting to seek redress in the courts. The institutional self-examination begun in the wake of the Schoen and Cornish resignations has yielded a bipartisan bill to set a less-restrictive legal standard for what constitutes actionable misconduct.
For decades, state courts have followed the federal courts’ lead in holding that sexual harassment must be “severe and pervasive” to justify relief under the state’s statute. That standard, first articulated in a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case, is so high that it discourages legitimate complaints, said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, who chaired the House’s Subcommittee on Workplace Safety and Respect.
“We’re untying the hands of the judges,” Peppin said about the bill she is sponsoring in response. It clarifies the definition of “an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment” as one that “does not require the harassing conduct or communication to be severe or pervasive.” Identical bills were introduced by DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman in the House and Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, in the Senate.
“This would be the Legislature saying we meant what we said years ago when we created a cause of action for sexual harassment,” Hortman said. Legislators said they were shocked at the descriptions of what some would-be litigants had endured on the job, only to be advised that the misconduct did not meet the “severe and pervasive” standard.
The proposed statutory change is the most far-reaching result to date of the Legislature’s review of its handling of sexual harassment complaints. Other changes adopted Wednesday by the House Rules Committee are internal to the House. They would commission a community survey, set up a hotline and an e-mail address for complaints, and build a website to advise the public about the House’s policy, which was rewritten to “encourage” reporting of behavior believed to be discriminatory or harassing. The new policy puts control of complaint investigations in the hands of nonpartisan staff, allows for the hiring of an outside investigator and requires that cases be reported to leaders of both parties.
These are moves in the right direction, ones that should inform a similar work in progress by a state Senate panel. More than that: They should serve as an example for all Minnesota employers who are serious about the well-being — and retention — of their employees.