Know your (new) rights

“Did you hear the one about the big-breasted floozy, the priest and the gay Scoutmaster?”

Bosses who tell jokes like this to their underlings, or who make inappropriate sexual suggestions, have long run the risk of facing a sexual harassment lawsuit. But, starting with the new year, you don’t have to be a boss to sexually harass a co-worker.

Under Assembly Bill 1856, all non-management employees can be held personally liable for harassing a co-worker starting Jan. 1, said Andrea Rosa, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s deputy director of legislation and policy. Individual co-employees had previously been protected from liability before the bill, which was authored by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica.

“The department will, in fact, name co-employees as respondents in sexual harassment cases,” Rosa said.

The change is part of a package of modifications to California’s civil rights laws going into effect with the new year, covering everything from workers’ rights to protection of those with disabilities to expanded rights for seniors living in mobile home parks.

Another Kuehl-authored bill, AB 2222, changes the definition of what constitutes a disability. Among the changes: any cancer-related health impairment will now be considered a disability, prohibiting employers from discriminating against workers facing chemotherapy side effects and other problems.

Also, people who use medication, prosthetics or other remedies to overcome a disability will no longer be considered to have a disability under Kuehl’s bill, Rosa said. If the disability is overcome, then it can no longer be used to disqualify a job applicant. For example, employers won’t be able to discriminate on the basis of a physical disability overcome by prosthetics, as they have been allowed to do for some jobs requiring strength or other physical demands.

In fact, employers will find many limits in the types of questions they can ask applicants during the hiring and employment process, thanks to Kuehl’s bill. Requirements for medical or psychological testing and questions regarding any disabilities an applicant may have won’t be allowed during the application process. Only after a job is offered can an employer ask about disabilities that may require special accommodations.

There will be some changes in housing discrimination laws as well, Rosa said. Senior citizens having trouble in their homes due to narrow entryways, a lack of handle bars and other design elements will benefit from Senate Bill 2011 by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, which states that all senior housing built after the new year must include certain specified requirements. This way, seniors won’t have to be modifying their homes when needs arise.

Another change in discrimination laws has already gone into effect. Property owners whose applications contain information about a potential renter’s race, religion, sex, disability and other questions that don’t pertain to rent are being told to immediately delete those questions due to the passage of AB 1493, written by Assemblyman George Nakano, D-Torrance. This ban on restrictive covenants could help renters who may have lost out on an apartment for the wrong reasons.