Sexual Harassment Legislation Defeated in Oklahoma House

Article excerpt

A bill that its House author said would extend sexual harassment protections to employees of very small businesses was defeated in the House on Monday.
Senate Bill 1594, by Sen. Brad Henry, D- Shawnee, and Rep. Opio Toure, D-OKC, faced stiff opposition from The State Chamber, which sent out an alert asking its members to encourage lawmakers to vote against the bill.
It would declare that prevention and prohibition of sexual harassment in all its forms is the public policy of Oklahoma.
The bill failed 43-55. Toure held it on reconsideration, which gives him three days in which to try to convince at least eight of his colleagues to vote for it when he brings it up for a vote again.
The problem, said Toure, is that sexual harassment cases are governed by federal law that applies only to businesses with 15 or more employees, and state courts follow that law in their decisions. Toure's amended version of the legislation specifically covered only businesses with 14 or fewer employees, and limited damages to no more than $25,000.
Toure said that the measure would cover both "quid pro quo" harassment, in which continued employment is based upon coercion to engage in sexual activity, and "hostile workplace" harassment, which involves offensive remarks or behavior tolerated by superiors.
According to business data from the State Department of Commerce, about 87 percent of Oklahoma businesses have 19 or fewer employees. Close to 75 percent have 10 or fewer workers.
Chamber Vice President Mike Seney said that the bill would primarily expand what is already protected by federal law.
"It's an attack against the employment-at-will doctrine in this state," he added.
Seney said that approval of the bill could also harm Oklahoma economically.
"We would become much more noncompetitive with other states," he said. "It opens a lot of small businesses for legal harassment."
Rep. Leonard Sullivan, R-OKC, echoed this argument in his discussion of the bill on the House floor. He said it could persuade some new business prospects to go elsewhere.
Toure questioned whether Oklahoma wants to attract businesses that would base their location decision on the presence or lack of a sexual harassment law.
"I don't think we want that company in Oklahoma," he said.
Rep. Hopper Smith, R-Tulsa, debated against the bill.
"This is just another bad trial attorney bill," he said, urging members to vote it down.
Sullivan agreed.
"This bill is simply a make-work bill for trial lawyers," he said. "It's harassing small companies out of business."
Rep. Bill Graves, R-OKC, said that sexual harassment is not defined in the bill, and said it should be clarified statutorily rather than relying upon case law. …

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