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Recent Enactments Expand Employers' Obligation to Prevent Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace

  • January 11, 2007

Recently enacted legislation in Puerto Rico has expanded employers’ obligation to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace by adding another protected category to Puerto Rico’s general anti-discrimination statute and by broadening the definition of sexual harassment.

Signed into law by the Governor on December 17, 2006, Act No. 271 amends Act No. 100 of June 30, 1959 (Puerto Rico’s general anti-discrimination statute) to include actual or perceived victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking (as these three terms are defined in other Puerto Rico statutes) as a category protected from workplace discrimination. Prior to the amendment, Act No. 100 afforded employees (and applicants) protection against discrimination on the bases of age, race, color, sex, marital status, national or social origin, social condition, political affiliation, or religious or political ideas. This protection against discrimination, already broader than that offered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has been made even greater by Act No. 271.

According to this amendment, an employer will not be presumed to know an employee’s personal situation in cases of discrimination against victims or perceived victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, unless the employer was in a position to know. Further, an employer is now obligated to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace to protect employees against potential aggression once the employer becomes aware of the possibility. An employer’s failure to take such action will be considered a discriminatory act.

Another law, Act No. 252, signed on November 30, 2006, amends Act No. 17 of April 22, 1988 (Puerto Rico’s statute prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace) by expanding the definition of sexual harassment to include offending conduct reproduced through electronic and/or multimedia materials or communications. Previously, Act No. 17’s prohibition against sexual harassment included unwelcome physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature; this amendment, which refers in its preamble to “virtual sexual harassment” as a “threat” to electronic commerce, also prohibits such conduct when reproduced through any method of communication, including but not limited to the use of multimedia, internet, or other electronic tool. Of course, the conduct in question, however reproduced, will only constitute sexual harassment under Act No. 17 if (a) sexual favors are made a condition of employment, or (b) it serves as the basis for making employment decisions, or (c) it creates a hostile work environment. This part of the statutory definition of sexual harassment was not affected by Act No. 252.

In light of these amendments, employers with operations in Puerto Rico should review and update their policies, employee handbooks, and other relevant employment documents, and advice and train employees and key personnel on these new legal provisions. Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to assist.

©2007 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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