Utah Legislature passes a bill aimed at hostile workplaces, but 271,794 workers can still be sexually harassed and discriminated against with no legal recourse

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, speaking Feb. 28, 2018.

The Utah Legislature has passed a bill to help find evidence of workplace harassment and discrimination, but stopped short of extending such protections to employees of the state’s smallest businesses.

Workers at companies with less than 15 employees still have no legal recourse for biases against their gender, race, sex, religion, pregnancy or other protected classes. A bill that would have extended protections to workplaces with more than five employees, HB283, failed to advance from the House Business and Labor Committee on Monday.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, originally sought such protections for workplaces of any size. But, after consulting with the Salt Lake Chamber and other business interests, she amended the bill to affect employers of five or more people — the same size of businesses that Idaho protects.

“If Idaho has been doing this since 1991, I think it’s very, very difficult for us to say we’re not sure about this,” Edwards told her colleagues at the hearing.

But Edwards’ revised bill failed to get a favorable recommendation in the committee, losing on a 3-7 vote. Representatives in opposition were concerned about burdens the bill would place on small businesses.

HB283 encountered opposition from a conservative organization, the Utah Eagle Forum, and a libertarian one, Libertas Institute, whose representatives both said they were also small business owners and who both referenced the 2015 anti-discrimination bill for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Connor Boyack. Courtesy photo

Maryann Christensen , Executive Director of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she would never discriminate, except to find the right person for the job. Her family and her employees’ families all depend on the workers, she said.

“But the fear is that if we fail to hire someone or if we terminate someone for any reason it would result in an action that would destroy our ability to support those families,” Christensen said.

Connor Boyack, the president of Libertas Institute, said a small business’ brand is closely tied to its employees and a business owner needs to be able to terminate them to preserve that brand. He gave the examples of a business selling LDS products who has an employee who decides to become an outspoken atheist, or a company selling feminine products with an employee who transitions to becoming a man.

“Your brand is very tied up into your few employees, who are all ambassadors,” Boyack said.

Christensen and Boyack said when the 2015 LGTB deal was reached, they were assured there would be no effort to impose the restrictions on businesses with fewer than 15 workers.

HB283 “goes against the good faith effort in the previous compromise,” Boyack said.

David Scott, a family therapist who also counsels people with post-traumatic stress disorder, testified in favor of HB283. He said he began working for a firm, heard other employees talk about sexual harassment, took those concerns to the board of directors, and was fired. He had about 70 clients he could no longer counsel.

“My termination, at that time in my life, when so many people counted on me, was devastating,” Scott said.

If Scott had worked at a company with at least 15 employees, he could have reported the sexual harassment and any retaliation to either the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or to the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division, either of whom would have launched inquiries. Scott also would have had the right to sue.

But neither federal nor Utah law offers such options for employees at the smaller businesses. Another advocate for HB283, Karen Christopherson, told the committee about working for a local chef who made disparaging remarks about women and blacks. He allowed men to be intoxicated at work but fired a single mother because he didn’t like her personality, Christopherson said.

“What do you do when your boss is the perpetrator in a small company?” Christopherson asked.

HB283 also would not have allowed businesses with less than 15 employees to be investigated by the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division and, instead, would have required both the employer and employee to go to an administrative hearing. Edwards said evidence has shown such hearings are the most effective way to resolve disputes, but some witnesses said the clause would force the businesses to hire a lawyer rather than letting the state agency do its own fact finding.

As of September, 271,794 Utah workers — about 18 percent of the state’s labor force — work at businesses with less than 15 employees, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

For workers at larger companies, the Utah Legislature on Feb. 9 passed HB30. It gives the Utah Antidiscriminaiton and Labor Division subpoena power and makes other changes designed to improve outcomes for workers who file discrimination claims. The changes are in response to a 2017 audit that found the agency ruled in employees’ favors just 0.7 percent over five years.

HB30 is waiting for a signature or veto from Gov. Gary Herbert.

Correction at 8:01 a.m. on March 2: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Karen Christopherson; it is not Christofferson as appeared on a House Business and Labor Committee meeting roster.

Correction at 11:07 a.m. on March 2: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Libertas Institute. It is not Utah Libertas.