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New Laws Require Additional Training and Prohibit Harassment of Unpaid Interns

Governor Brown signed AB 1443 and AB 2053 amending California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.  AB 1443 expands FEHA’s anti-harassment protection to unpaid interns.  AB 2053 requires employers to add an anti-bullying module to their sexual harassment prevention training.  Employers and employees (and now volunteers) need to be mindful of the new protections and requirements.

Protection for Unpaid Interns and Volunteers

Existing law protects employees and applicants from unlawful discrimination and harassment in the workplace on account of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexgender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status.   AB 1443 expands FEHA’s protections to persons in unpaid internships or other volunteer positions.  The law does not make it lawful to employ unpaid interns, and the Labor Commissioner and the Department of Labor have taken strong positions that make it very difficult to use unpaid interns.  Regardless of whether the intern or volunteer is required to be paid as an employee, effective January 1, 2015, employers and employees may not discriminate or harass unpaid interns and volunteers in violation of FEHA.

Employers should communicate to its employees that unpaid interns and volunteers are afforded the same rights to a harassment-free workplace as other employees.

Anti-Bullying Training

Employers with 50 or more employees are required to provide sexual harassment prevention training to supervisory employees every two years.  AB 2053 requires the training include a module regarding “prevention of abusive conduct.”  The law does not actually prohibit abusive conduct, unless such conduct otherwise violates FEHA, but it does require employers to train supervisory employees regarding conduct “that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.”

AB 2053 instructs, “Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.”

While abusive conduct unrelated to a protected category may not be illegal (yet), an employer could theoretically be cited for failing to train supervisors regarding such abusive conduct.  There is no indication that an employee could sue an employer for a failure to provide the requisite training, but the failure to provide the training, or a violation of a company’s anti-bullying policy, may certainly be evidence of a hostile work environment in the right case.

Employers should ensure their next sexual harassment prevention training includes an anti-bullying module.  Employers may also want to consider updating their handbooks to ensure they have a policy prohibiting “abusive conduct.”

The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego
95 South Market Street, Suite 520
San Jose, CA 95113
Tel. 408-293-6341
Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman, former associate of The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego.
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