Job discrimination proposal draws flak from Republicans
DENVER — Small businesses, just like larger ones, could face employment discrimination lawsuits under a bill that won preliminary approval in the Colorado House on Wednesday.
The measure, HB1136, extends to employees who work in business with 14 or fewer workers the same right to file anti-discrimination lawsuits against their employers that workers in larger companies can do in federal court.
The bill also extends to all employees regardless of the size of the business they work for the ability to file such lawsuits in state court.
House Democrats said the issue was a matter of fairness, saying workers in small businesses have few places to turn to when they are discriminated against for such things as age, religion or sex.
“We’re hardly breaking new ground,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. “This bill protects workers. States that have good employment discrimination laws have good workforces and have highly skilled, high-paying jobs.”
House Republicans, however, argued for hours that the bill would stifle job growth, either by putting employers out of business because they could be sued in frivolous discrimination cases or wouldn’t hire more workers to exceed the 15-employee threshold the bill covers.
GOP lawmakers said if the measure was a jobs bill as Democrats claimed, it was only for trial lawyers.
“This is a complete outrage to small businesses,” said Rep. Jared Wright, R-Fruita. “We’re punishing economic growth in the state. We’re allowing frivolous lawsuits by employees to punish these small business. Do you think that’s going to help economic growth?”
Wright, who employed a trial lawyer for his own employment case against the city of Fruita after he resigned as a police officer there, said the bill would only lead to jobs for lawyers.
Republicans tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill more than a dozen times, primarily to get rid of any punitive damage awards. Wright tried but failed to amend the bill to call it the “Trial Lawyers Employment Act.”
Levy said the measure includes plenty of safeguards against so-called runaway juries, including capping compensatory and punitive damages to $10,000 for businesses with 1-5 workers and $25,000 for companies with 6-14 workers.
Companies with 15 or more workers would fall under existing award caps under federal law.
“Punitive damages are only awarded if the respondent or the defendant (is) engaged in discriminatory employment practices with malice or reckless indifference to the rights of the complaining party,” Levy said. “This is a very high standard that you have to show. In addition, in terms of the burden that punitive damages would impose on the employer, the caps that are in the bill ... would apply to punitive damage awards also. This isn’t going to bankrupt anybody.”
The bill requires a final House vote, which could come as early as today, before heading to the Senate.