What you need to know about the recent changes to sexual harassment laws

by Mark Zeidman, Attorney/Shareholder | view original article in Houston Business Journal

Historically an employer-friendly state, Texas will recently experienced some unexpected changes that warrant close attention by employers. In a remarkable move, Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed two new bills into law, SB 45 and HB 21, that will expand employee protections pertaining to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Significant changes coming for employers in Texas regarding sexual harassment will include:

A broader definition of who qualifies as an employer.

The statute of limitations allows more time for employees to file their charges with the Texas Workforce Commission.

Employers will now be required to immediately and appropriately respond to a sexual harassment charge by disciplining the harasser and preventing a recurrence, not just taking “prompt remedial action.”

The laws expand the possibility of liability for supervisors, owners, human resource managers and other employees.

Employers will soon discover that sexual harassment in the workplace should not be tolerated or ignored. Legal implications will surely follow. Below are the changes that went into effect Sept. 1.

New Employer Definitions

All employers in Texas may be held liable for a sexual harassment claim under Texas law. Currently, employees can only file a claim of harassment against their employer only if they have 15 or more employees. The new law defines an employer as “one who employs one or more employees.”

Additionally, when it comes to sexual harassment claims, liability expands to other employees.

Managers and other individuals who make employment decisions (e.g., hiring, firing, discipline, and pay) and those who exercise control over the employee will be considered employers under the Texas Labor Code for purposes of sexual harassment.

Revised Statute of Limitations

Under current law, an employee must file a charge of discrimination with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) within 180 days of the alleged harassment before filing a lawsuit against an employer.

Beginning Sept. 1, employees will be required to file their charge with the TWC within 300 days after the date of the alleged harassment. This applies to sexual harassment only and does not apply to discrimination based on age, race or color.

Revised Standard for Employer Response

Employers who knowingly or should have known that sexual harassment is occurring at their business yet fail to take immediate and appropriate action to correct the behavior will be committing an unlawful employment practice. This is a higher standard for employers, who currently have to take “prompt remedial action” after a complaint, a more general requirement under the Texas Labor Code.

Next Steps for Employers

Employers should review policies in their employee handbooks that pertain to harassment in the workplace.

Employers should train employees on their company’s anti-harassment policy and what to do if someone experiences or witnesses conduct they believe is harassing.

Managers should be trained on how to recognize conduct that may be harassing and changes in employee performance that could indicate harassment. Managers should also be trained on what to do when they learn of harassing conduct.

Employers should contact their liability insurance carriers and confirm that their policies cover individual employees who may be accused of harassment.