Tougher law on sexual harassment to be proposed

January 29, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

Concerned that employers and employees don't always recognize sexual harassment when they see it, some members of the Baltimore City Council plan to introduce legislation that would define it -- and add stiff punitive penalties to city law for violators.

The council members, led by Councilman Martin J. O'Malley, D-3rd, and Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, D-5th, said yesterday that by defining harassment, they hoped to curtail violations in what they described as a "muddy area of the law."

The proposed bill, which is expected to be introduced Monday, also would streamline the process for enforcing prohibitions against harassment by providing a victim with relief at the local level in cases where an employer refuses to take corrective action, they said.

Now, in cases against "recalcitrant employers," victims must seek relief in the federal courts -- which often is a long and "burdensome" process, Mr. O'Malley said.

Under the proposed bill's more clearly defined language, violations could be pursued more easily by the city's Community Relations Commission, he said.

Mrs. Hall said the proposed bill was an outgrowth of some confusion born in the wake of the consciousness-raising U.S. Senate hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, during which Anita Hill charged sexual harassment.

In some cases, Mrs. Hall said, harassment is "not really recognized by a lot of people," and in other cases, there is confusion about what is "average, normal behavior" between the sexes in the workplace.

"We thought it was time that we should take action on this, on what is and . . . what is not sexual harassment," Mrs. Hall said.

"We're hoping that once it's defined, people will avoid it . . . and we will not have to use this as a hammer to stop" the actions.

Mr. O'Malley said the proposal "puts some new teeth" in the city's Community Relations Code by adding penalties of up to $1,000 an incident, or in the case of a pattern of harassment, $1,000 a day for the duration of the illegal behavior.

Currently, penalties generally are confined to compensatory damages, which amount to back pay for the victim, said Wendy A. Kronmiller, a city lawyer and chairwoman of the 25-member Baltimore Commission for Women, a group that assisted in drafting the legislation.

Employees who believe they are victims of harassment can pursue complaints on the city, state and federal levels, but they must depend primarily on case law stemming from federal regulations governing employment discrimination.

Victims also can seek relief and damages through the courts under the state's tort laws, Ms. Kronmiller said.

Under the proposed prohibition, sexual harassment would be defined as any "unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature," when it was a condition of employment or rendered the workplace "intimidating, hostile or offensive."

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