Texas Expands and Redefines Sexual Harassment Laws

July 19, 2021 | Podcasts

With three Texas bills set to take effect on September 1, 2021, that will expand and redefine sexual harassment, Jackson Walker attorney Michelle Mishoe Miller highlights the future impact of each upcoming law on the workplace.

Related Insights: Changes on the Horizon: Major Revisions to Texas Sexual Harassment Laws »

Greg Lambert: Hi, everyone. I’m Greg Lambert, and this is Jackson Walker Fast Takes. While there may be a lot of focus this summer on the Texas Legislature’s special sessions, there were a number of bills actually signed into law during the regular session and set to become law on September 1. Three of those bills significantly expanded and redefined sexual harassment in the workplace. So I asked Jackson Walker Labor & Employment attorney Michelle Miller to come on and talk about how these upcoming laws will affect the workplace.

Michelle, welcome back to the show.

Michelle Miller: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Greg.

Greg Lambert: I’ll just start off with the big question: What exactly did the Texas Legislature do this session to change sexual harassment laws?

Michelle Miller: Well, they’ve been very busy. They passed three bills in particular – Senate Bill 45, House Bill 21, and Senate Bill 282. Now, we can talk more about these in detail, but essentially Senate Bill 45 expands the definitions of an employer and sexual harassment and it imposes a requirement on employers to take immediate and appropriate action when a sexual harassment claim is made; House Bill 21 extends the deadline for filing a charge of sexual harassment; and Senate Bill 282 bans settling sexual harassment claims with public funds. So, these are big redefinitions of state laws for sexual harassment.

Greg Lambert: Yeah, and Senate Bill 45 really expanded the definition of sexual harassment. So, can you talk more about what that bill changed with sexual harassment laws?

Michelle Miller: Yeah. This one’s going to be very important for everyone to understand, especially employers. The most important thing that we need to understand as an employer or as a practicing attorney is that the state expanded the definition of “employer.” Under current law, the definition of an employer who can be held liable for a charge of sexual harassment is an employer who has 15 or more employees, but the new law (Senate Bill 45) changed that so that you only have to have one employee. That’s huge, because that means that if you have just one employee, which is essentially any employer in Texas—

Greg Lambert: I was going to say – that covers everybody, right?

Michelle Miller: It covers everybody. So, everybody now is going to be covered on September 1 under the laws of sexual harassment. That’s really important.

Greg Lambert: That expands the definition of the employer, but it also did some additional expansions on definitions. Can you tell us more about that?

Michelle Miller: Sure. Senate Bill 45 expanded the definition of an employer—and that’s really important, again, for practitioners or for employers to understand because before, claims could be brought against an employer, but the new bill states that anyone who acts directly in the interests of an employer in relation to an employee can now be charged with sexual harassment. That means that, effectively, a charge of discrimination can be brought against any business with any employee regardless of size and it can also be brought against managers, supervisors, coworkers, and even potentially contractors or vendors. So, this is going to be really, really important.

Greg Lambert: The next bill that we’re talking about expands the deadline of when you can file. Can tell us a little bit more about that one?

Michelle Miller: Yeah. This is, again, very important. The current law coincides with the EEOC deadline, and that’s 300 days. So, with EEOC, if you are going to file a claim against your employer for any kind of discrimination, you have 300 days to file a charge with the EEOC and also with the coinciding state agency, which is the Texas Workforce Commission. Now, this extends the deadline for filing a sexual harassment charge. Typically in Texas, you had only 180 days to file a charge of discrimination with the TWC, but now they’ve changed that so you have an additional 120 days just with regard to sexual harassment. It’s important to know that it doesn’t apply to any other forms of discrimination – for instance, race, color, disability, sexual orientation. It just focuses on sexual harassment. So, you’ve got a longer time in Texas to bring a claim of sexual harassment. That’s, again, that’s huge.

Greg Lambert: Yeah, it is. Finally, the last bill talks about the use of public funds when it comes to sexual harassment claims. Tell us a little bit more about what’s going on there.

Michelle Miller: Well, this one is an interesting one. Senate Bill 282 bans the use of public funds for settling any sexual harassment claims. Some people might be surprised that there wasn’t any sort of law like this before but there wasn’t. So, what this does is it prohibits appropriating any kind of money and state agencies from using any money to settle or pay sexual harassment claims, and that includes school districts, charter schools, counties, municipalities, any member elected or appointed member of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch. So, anybody who works in any of those areas is not going to be protected by the use of public funds. So, that’s another, greater protection for people who bring sexual harassment claims.

Greg Lambert: Well, Michelle Miller, thank you very much for literally coming in my office. It’s only taken 70 episodes, but we finally have done one of these Fast Takes in person. So, thank you very much for coming in and talking about the changes in sexual harassment laws here in Texas.

Michelle Miller: Sure, Greg, thanks a bunch. It’s great to be in your office again and back in the office, and I hope you’re well and everybody out there, as well.

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The music is by Eve Searls.

This podcast is made available by Jackson Walker for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice, and is not a substitute for legal advice from qualified counsel. Your use of this podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Jackson Walker. The facts and results of each case will vary, and no particular result can be guaranteed.

Texas Legislative Updates:

For questions on how the new sexual harassment laws affect you and your business, please contact Michelle Miller at 713.752.4460 or mmmiller@jw.com, or any member of the Jackson Walker Labor & Employment team.