Latest Developments from the Connecticut General Assembly: The Labor and Public Employees Committee Begins to Speak

At its February 19, 2019 and March 14, 2019 meetings, the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee began the process of approving bills.  The following is a brief summary of the bills that the Committee voted favorably on and advanced out of committee.

MINIMUM WAGE: The Committee advanced out of committee three separate bills that would increase the minimum wage. House Bill No. 5004 and Senate Bill No. 2 (both entitled “An Act Increasing The Minimum Fair Wage”) would both increase the minimum wage from the current $10.10/hour to $12.00/hour on January 1, 2020, $13.50/hour on January 1, 2021, and $15.00/hour on January 1, 2022, with the minimum wage thereafter being subject to annual indexing/adjustment for inflation. House Bill No. 7191 (“An Act Increasing The Minimum Wage”) would more slowly increase the minimum wage ($11.25/hour on January 1, 2020, $12.50/hour on January 1, 2021, $13.75/hour on January 1, 2022 and $15.00/hour on January 1, 2023).

FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE: The Committee approved two almost identical bills- Senate Bill No. 1 (“An Act Concerning Paid Family And Medical Leave”) and House Bill No. 5003 (“An Act Implementing A Paid Family Medical Leave Program”) – that would provide paid family and medical leave benefits to eligible employees (namely, all private sector employees, and public employees whose unions collectively bargain for them to join this program) and also would make other changes to the state’s Family and Medical Leave Act [“FMLA”].  Specifically, these bills would create a “Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program” that will offer 1) up to 12 workweeks of “family and medical leave compensation” to covered employees during any 12 month period, and 2) two additional weeks of compensation to such an employee for a serious health condition that occurs during a pregnancy that results in incapacitation. The Program will be funded by employee contributions to the “Family and Medical Leave Insurance Trust Fund”, to be collected on or before July 1, 2020, and would begin to provide compensation to employees on and after July 1, 2021.  These bills also 1) extend the applicability of the state’s FMLA to all private employers with at least one employee (as opposed to the current 75 employee threshold), 2) change the state FMLA’s minimum eligibility requirement for employees, from working at least 12 months for the current employer, and at least 1000 hours during the previous 12 months, to earning $2,325 from one or more employers during the employee’s highest earning quarter during the previous five quarters, 3) align the maximum amount of leave under the state FMLA with the federal FMLA requirement (i.e., 12 weeks of leave during any 12 month period), 4) broaden the definition of “parent” and add siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and “any other individual related by blood or whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family member” to the list of family members for whom an employee can take FMLA “caregiver” leave, and 5) eliminate an employer’s ability to require an employee taking FMLA leave to use his or her employer-provided paid leave.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND DISCRIMINATION COMPLAINTS: House Bill No. 7044 (“An Act Concerning Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”) would amend the anti-sexual harassment training requirements for employers to include 1) training on the employer’s anti-harassment policies, and 2) examples of the type of conduct that might constitute sexual harassment. This bill would also eliminate the following defenses by employers to sexual harassment complaints filed with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities [“CHRO”]: 1) the employee’s initial complaint was properly investigated, immediate corrective action was taken and no act of sexual harassment subsequently occurred, 2) the employee’s initial complaint was not reported to the employer prior to the filing of a complaint with CHRO, or 3) the employer has a policy prohibiting sexual harassment or recently provided training on the meaning and effect of sexual harassment. Such defenses to CHRO complaints may only be introduced by employers as to the amount of damages owed.  This bill would require the employee to consent in writing to “immediate corrective actions” that an employer may take to remediate sexual harassment, such as employee relocation, reassignment, or a different employee work schedule.  Finally, this bill would grant CHRO the authority to award damages and attorneys’ fees in employment discrimination cases.

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION: Senate Bill No. 164 (“An Act Including Certain Mental Or Emotional Impairments Within The Definition Of “Personal Injury” Under The Workers’ Compensation Statutes”) would expand workers’ compensation benefits to include job-related mental or emotional impairments suffered by police officers and firefighters resulting directly in the course of employment from visually witnessing the death or maiming of a person (or the immediate aftermath) that is not the result of natural causes or a motor vehicle accident.  This concept has been bandied about by the legislature since the 2012 tragedy in Newtown.  As its title would suggest, House Bill No. 7241 (“An Act Concerning Minor And Technical Changes To The Workers’ Compensation Act”) would make minor and technical changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act.

“CAPTIVE AUDIENCES”: Senate Bill No. 64 (“An Act Concerning Captive Audiences”) would prohibit any employer from requiring an employee to attend an employer-sponsored meeting, the primary purpose being to communicate the employer’s opinion on political or religious matters. Among the exceptions contained in this bill are 1) such meetings for employees of political and religious organizations, 2) “casual conversations” and 3) where the requirement is limited to managerial and supervisory employees. This bill would provide for a cause of action in the courts for alleged violations.

HEALTH INSURANCE: Senate Bill No. 1004 (“An Act Concerning Public Insurance Options for Small Business Employees”) would permit employees of “small employers” (and their dependents) to participate in the State’s “Partnership 2.0” health insurance plan that is offered to most state employees (and increasingly, to more municipal employees) provided that: 1) participation by each small employer and employee shall be on a voluntary basis, 2) in a unionized workplace, participation in such plan shall be by mutual agreement of the small employer and the union, 3) no group of employees shall be refused entry into such plan by reason of past or future health care costs or claim experience, 4) rates paid by the state for its employees are not adversely affected by this subdivision, 5) administrative costs for this coverage shall not be paid by the state, and 6) participation in such plan shall be for the duration of the period of such plan, or for such other period as mutually agreed by the small employer and the state. A “small employer” is generally defined as an employer with fewer than 50 employees. House Bill No. 7238 (“An Act Concerning Administrative Changes To The Municipal Employees Health Insurance Program”) would make administrative changes to the municipal employees’ health insurance program, which is offered to certain municipal employers, non-profit agencies, and small employers.

PARAEDUCATOR PAY: House Bill No. 7224 (“An Act Concerning Paraeducator Pay Equity”) would require the Commissioner of Education to evaluate classifications of noncertified board of education employees on a periodic basis to determine if such classifications are in the appropriate compensation plan, based upon “appropriate and reasonably objective job-related criteria”. The Commissioner may establish evaluation committees, consisting of representatives of boards of education, management and employees in classifications being evaluated. The Commissioner shall determine ratings for classifications. While not mandatory, these ratings may be considered in regard to setting compensation for noncertified board of education employees, subject to the provisions of applicable municipal paraeducator collective bargaining agreements and the applicable collective bargaining statutory procedures. Any position may be excluded from the evaluation if the Commissioner and an exclusive bargaining representative mutually agree to exclude such position.

TASK FORCES AND STUDIES: The Committee approved bills that continue to display legislative affinity for task forces and further study of issues. House Bill No. 5053 (“An Act Establishing A Task Force To Increase Employment Opportunities For Persons Recovering From Substance Abuse”) would create a task force to investigate strategies for increasing employment opportunities for persons recovering from substance abuse. House Bill No. 7237 (“An Act Concerning A Disparity Study”) would require CHRO to conduct a “disparity study” in order to assess whether the State’s current contract “set-aside program” to determine if it achieves the goal of facilitating the participation in state contracts of small contractors and minority business enterprises. House Bill No. 7221 (“An Act Concerning Workforce Investment Boards”) would require the Connecticut Department of Labor, in collaboration with Workforce Investment Boards within the state, to conduct a study of programs offered to individuals seeking employment within our state. Furthermore, the following bills would set up other task forces and studies:

-House Bill No. 7316 (“An Act Establishing A Task Force To Study and Clarify The  Employment Status of Home Care Providers”)

-House Bill No. 7273 (“An Act Establishing A Study of Internships and Student Teaching in College Environments”)

-Senate Bill No. 356 (“An Act Requiring A Study of Apprenticeship Training Programs”)

MISCELLANEOUS: As its title would suggest, House Bill No. 7240 (“An Act Concerning Minor And Technical Changes To Labor Department Statutes”) would make minor and technical changes to various statutes concerning the Connecticut Department of Labor and its programs. Finally, Senate Bill No. 988 (“An Act Concerning The Workforce And The Safe Delivery Of Natural Gas Distribution”) would require construction contractors hired by public utilities to install or replace natural gas distribution infrastructure to employ on site only employees who have successfully completed all of the training and obtained all certifications required by our state for the performance of such work.

The deadline for the Labor and Public Employees Committee to approve (and advance out of committee) bills is March 26, 2019. Bills affecting labor and employment issues may also emerge from other committees (such as the Judiciary and Planning and Development Committees).  The 2019 session of the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on June 5, 2019, so stay tuned to see if any of these bills are enacted.