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posted: 9/11/2019 1:00 AM

More stringent state human rights laws a concern for small businesses

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By Cole Lauterbach
The Center Square

Small businesses in Illinois will soon have to abide by Illinois' human rights laws, which go beyond the existing federal regulations they were already required to follow.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, takes effect next July. It removed a provision that said businesses in Illinois with fewer than 15 workers were exempt from the Illinois Human Rights Act.

"The Department is proud to have supported this fundamental piece of legislation," Illinois Department of Human Rights Director Jim Bennett said.

Pritzker signed a host of other bills earlier this month that will also affect small businesses starting in July 2020.

Among them is the Workplace Transparency Act, which requires employers to use the Illinois Department of Human Rights sexual harassment prevention training program or establish a similar one, requires employers to report to the Illinois Department of Human Rights the number of judgments or rulings involving sexual harassment and unlawful discrimination annually, requires every bar and restaurant to have sexual harassment policies and prevention training, among other new rules.

Small business advocates said many companies could unknowingly face lawsuits with legal fees or settlements that could put them out of business.

"We're really concerned about our business owners," said Mark Grant, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' Illinois chapter. "A lot of them are one lawsuit away from having to close their doors."

Grant said disgruntled employees would soon be able to file a lawsuit that could be eventually deemed frivolous, but cost a small business enough in legal fees to bankrupt it.

Changes signed into law by former Gov. Bruce Rauner have recently taken effect, including a near-year statute of limitations in which an employee may file a claim against an employer and a process in which the employee may opt-out of the state's Department of Human Rights investigating the claim and pursuing the matter in court.

Some sexual harassment, disability, pregnancy discrimination protections bypass the 15-employee threshold, thus already apply to small businesses.

Religious institutions will still exempt from the law.

Small businesses that don't have more than 15 workers for more than 20 calendar weeks, which would affect companies that hire seasonal help, also would remain exempt.