N.H. House panel scours domestic violence anti-discrimination bill

Committee raises concerns about previously approved measure

A bill that would prohibit businesses from discriminating against domestic violence victims – which already has narrowly passed the House – may have difficulty doing it again, if the recent hearing before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is any indication.

The bill was sent to the committee so it could take a closer look at the penalty portion of the bill. But some committee members questioned whether the bill should have been approved at all.

Absent from the hearing were victim’s advocates and labor unions, perhaps thinking that the battle was won after the House voted to pass the bill, 186-153, on April 16. That left Senate Bill 390’s two sponsors to defend the measure themselves.

The bill would make it illegal to refuse to hire an “an otherwise qualified individual because” who was a victim of a “domestic violence, harassment, sexual assault or stalking” or discharging that person “or in any manner discriminate or retaliate” with regard to “promotion, compensation or other terms, conditions or privileges of employment.”

Unlike a similar bill prohibiting landlords from such discrimination in renting apartments, the bill does not require that the victim have had a restraining order.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester. “Are there specific examples?”

Bill sponsor Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia, could not offer one, at least when it came to New Hampshire examples. He argued that too many women were reluctant to share something so personal. “We need to open our eyes that these problems do exist,” he said.

Vaillancourt also asked if the bill would encourage “malingering at work” because some employers might say they were not doing a good job at work “because of the beating I get at home.”

“This bill is not geared for that,” said Hosmer.

When Vaillancourt peppered Rep. Peter Sullivan, D-Manchester, the sponsor of a similar bill in the House, with a similar question, Sullivan fired back: “Which side are you on: Do you stand with the victims of domestic violence, or do you stand with the abusers?”

But sometimes the question is which employee do you try to protect in a potentially dangerous situation, maintained Rep. Shawn Jasper. What happens when employees keep getting phone calls from a stalker, threatening to come into the workplace “and harm her and anyone who gets in my way.”

There should be some “out” for the employer to say, “I’m sorry. I can’t put everyone here at risk,” he said.

Hosmer said that the employer could contact the police and make “reasonable accommodations,” language that was in the original bill before it was amended by the Senate, such as enabling that employer to park closer or change their shift.

When it came to determining a penalty, Vaillancourt actually suggested toughening up the bill, which calls for a maximum $2,500 administrative fine from the state Labor Department.

“How is that going to help the victim, without having had a chance to be made whole?” Vaillancourt asked.

Hosmer said he would be amendable to adding provisions enabling the victim to sue the business, but others on the committee were worried that any amendment to the bill might result in its death at a committee of conference. They noted that the bill includes a study committee to look further into penalties.

An administrative fine may not be much of a deterrence in itself, said Sullivan, but “it makes a statement that we don’t tolerate discrimination against domestic violence victims in any shape and form.”

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