Anti-workplace harassment and equal pay legislation becomes law in Vermont

By ERIN PETENKO

VTDigger

Published: 06-30-2023 9:26 AM

Gov. Phil Scott has signed into law a measure intended to strengthen anti-harassment protections in the workplace and ban pay discrimination for certain groups.

The bill, S.103, won final approval in the Senate during this month’s veto session. It replaces a previous “severe or pervasive” standard for harassment claims with a broader, more holistic view of what constitutes harassment. Scott signed the bill Wednesday.

The measure also expands Vermont’s equal pay law, already in place on the basis of gender, to include race, national origin, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Scott’s spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, said via email that the bill would strengthen protections against discrimination as Vermont focuses on increasing equity.

“While there were some concerns raised by employers, it appears those issues will be manageable, and the positive impacts of the bill outweighed the risks,” Kelley wrote.

Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden Southeast, who introduced the bill, said she was proud of its broad support in the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, which she chairs. Ram Hinsdale said the bill would show people of color and LGBTQ+ people across the country that “Vermont takes their well-being in the workplace seriously.”

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Bor Yang, the outgoing director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, called the measure “the most important civil rights bill that we have seen in Vermont in a very long time.”

She said it would address the systemic harm of wage disparities that have disproportionately affected marginalized women.

“We know that women of color, and we know that trans women, and we know that women with disabilities make less than any other group of people,” she said. “So when we see equal pay being expanded to include them, this is an opportunity for them to access … their hopes and dreams for themselves.”

Under the new law, companies are not allowed to add “no rehire” clauses to settlement agreements on harassment claims, a provision that previously applied only to sexual harassment cases, Yang said.

Missing from the signed bill is a clause the House considered that would have applied the new anti-harassment rules to K-12 students. House members ultimately opted to remove the language, although the Legislature passed a separate bill, S.138, that would create a working group to study how to treat harassment and discrimination in schools.

Ram Hinsdale said her omission of students from the version of the bill she introduced was simply a matter of jurisdiction. She said she believed the Senate Committee on Education should address the provision, rather than her commerce committee.

Yang said she was “saddened” that student protections were removed from the bill. “There’s no reason why kids should have to prove that they’ve been harassed under a different standard than adults do in Vermont,” she said.

Yang said she hopes the Legislature will take additional action next year. Particularly important to her, she said, is to get rid of a requirement that students prove their academic performance has suffered as a result of harassment.

“A student who is being called derogatory, sexist comments or racial slurs — we can objectively know that that is harmful without the student failing in school or missing class,” Yang said.