Workplace Harassment Bill Fails in House Committee

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The state Capitol, Denver, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly defeated a bill Monday night that had been a top priority for many of their colleagues. It would have updated the state’s workplace harassment laws and eliminated the legal standard that requires harassment to be severe or pervasive, among many other provisions.

The final vote was 9-2, with five Democrats joining the committee’s four Republicans to reject the bill. The Democrats who voted against it said it needs more work and they hope to move forward with a policy next session. 

“I hope that we don't lose sight of that, that people are committed to working with each other, because these issues are important to us,” said Democratic Rep. Jennifer Bacon. 

However it was a blow to the legislature’s Democratic women in particular. Women in the House and Senate caucuses had collectively ranked the bill as the number one policy they wanted to pass this session. 

“It was a disappointment that we didn't get it done this year,” said Democratic Sen. Faith Winter, the measure’s main sponsor. “Right now we still have a standard of severe or pervasive, which is an acknowledgement that there's a level of harassment that's appropriate. And I think we can do better in Colorado.”

Winter said she had no idea the measure would run into such hurdles in the House, which has a wide Democratic majority, especially after it passed the Senate with some bipartisan support, including that chamber’s only Republican woman.

Winter said she realized her bill was on shaky ground late last week on the day of its public hearing before the Judiciary Committee. She said she got wind that the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and the Colorado Department of Human Services were now opposed to significant parts of the bill. They had previously been neutral.

After a late night hearing, the committee postponed its vote until Monday. When it came time to vote, some Democrats on the committee seemed to point to that opposition from state agencies as a factor in the bill’s demise. 

“We heard at 2:30 in the morning from lots of groups, including agencies that would be the ones having to look at these and do this,” said Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, who also said she was concerned that sponsors may not have gotten enough input from employers and others in crafting the bill language.

The surprising defeat was a win for Colorado’s largest businesses organizations, which had long opposed the measure, saying its language was nebulous, could force employers to settle cases unnecessarily, and would make them liable for even a single instance of harassment. 

Over the weekend, the House sponsors drafted a lot of amendments to try to win over enough votes to make it through the committee, but withdrew them when it was clear the changes wouldn’t be enough to make a difference. 

“We had amendments that addressed pretty much everything everybody came to ask us for,” said Democratic Rep. Susan Lontine, the sponsor in the House. “And so there we are. I don't see the point in running amendments when we already know the outcome.”

Both Lontine and Winter have personal experience with workplace harassment. In recent years, they each came forward to accuse their colleagues, Republican Sen. Larry Crowder and Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock, respectively, of sexual harassment.