Oklahoma House kills sexual harassment bill

Tuesday, April 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Legislation targeting sexual harassment within small businesses was killed by the Oklahoma House Monday after opponents said it was written to harass small businessmen and women.

``This is a death knell for small businesses in Oklahoma,'' Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Del City, said in a pitched voice during emotional debate.

``Small businesses cannot afford all of theses frivolous lawsuits that would come out,'' said Calvey, an attorney who practices employment law.

Supporters, including Rep. Kevin Cox, D-Oklahoma City, said the legislation was needed to protect young women desperate for work from the sexual advances of ``dirty old crusty men.''

``They've got to do that to keep their jobs,'' Cox said.

Other House members said victims of sexual harassment already have remedies in the courts.

``There's no need for this law. It's harassing small companies out of business,'' said Rep. Leonard Sullivan, R-Oklahoma City, a real estate agent.

The measure's House author, Rep. Opio Toure, D-Oklahoma City, said the bill would give employees at businesses with 14 or fewer workers the same legal rights to combat sexual harassment as workers of larger companies, who are covered under state and federal law.

An amendment by Toure would have limited damages from a civil lawsuit based on sexual harassment to $25,000.

``There ought to be protection,'' Toure shouted, pointing his finger in the air and pivoting next to his desk.

``It is an outrage.''

House members voted 55-43 against the measure, which passed the Senate 43-0. Toure blamed its defeat on opposition from the State Chamber of Commerce, a statewide business and industry group.

Mike Seney, vice president of the State Chamber, said the organization opposes the measure and had notified its members of its possible impact.

``We're not against laws that protect employees from sexual harassment,'' Seney said. But the measure goes beyond what is required by federal laws on sexual harassment and could make Oklahoma uncompetitive with other states, he said.

``Small businesses cannot absorb that type of burden,'' he said.

Toure said he may ask the House members to reconsider their vote before the Legislature adjourns next month.

``I'm absolutely disappointed,'' Toure said. ``What it says to employers is that you can still harass employees if you've got 14 or fewer employees. I think it's a bad deal.''

Supporters and opponents alike condemned sexual harassment in the workplace. But Rep. Chris Hastings, R-Tulsa, said it is not necessary to expand laws against sexual harassment because victims already have legal remedies.

``These people aren't excluded,'' said Hastings, an attorney. He said victims can allege outrageous conduct and sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

``The courts give rise to a cause of action,'' Hastings said.

Cox said the measure was needed to protect ``the least, the last and the left out'' who cannot afford to hire an attorney.

``Let somebody mess with your daughter,'' Cox said. ``Everybody doesn't have the same luxury.''

The measure is Senate Bill 1594.