On April 29, 2022, organized labor achieved a long-sought political objective when the Connecticut House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 163, “An Act Protecting Employee Freedom of Speech and Conscience (the Act).” The Act expands employee free speech rights, including the right to not be required to listen to speech, in addition to, banning mandatory employer-sponsored meetings, often referred to by unions as “captive audience” meetings, which unions argue are major deterrents to labor organizing. The Act was signed by the Governor on May 17, 2022, and becomes effective on July 1, 2022.
The Act prohibits employers from disciplining, firing, or threatening employees because they refuse to attend an employer-sponsored meeting, listen to a speech, or read a communication that’s primarily designed to communicate the employer’s “religious” or “political” opinion. However, the law doesn’t prohibit:
- Communication of information when it’s legally required;
- “Causal conversations” between employees or between an employee and an agent, representative, or employer’s designee so long as participation isn’t required; or
- A requirement limited to the employer’s managerial and supervisory employees.
For purposes of the Act, “political matters” are defined as “matters relating to elections for political office, political parties, proposals to change legislation, proposals to change regulation and the decision to join or support any political party or political, civic, community, fraternal or labor organization.” It should also be noted that the term “casual conversations” is not defined, and the legislation does not provide guidance relating to how an employer may or should regulate these conversations with employees.
The law also does not apply to religious corporations, entities exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, or those that are otherwise exempt regarding speech about religious matters when it’s to employees who perform work connected with the corporation or entity. Religious matters are matters that relate to religious affiliation and practice and the decision to join or support any religious organization or association.
The law also expands the conditions under which a civil action may start and allows employees to sue employers in court for alleged violations. Under Section 31-51q, employees may sue for damages when they are subject to “discipline or discharge” for exercising free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Connecticut equivalent, with some exceptions.
Next Step for Employers
Employers faced with union organizing drives or other situations that would ordinarily prompt them to conduct mandatory meetings of employees should consult with counsel about whether to hold these meetings, the risks of discussing particular topics and steps that might mitigate any risks. They should also consider strategies for how to manage refusals by employees to attend such meetings and any disruptions by attendees.
Employers should keep in mind that bans on discipline and discharge for refusing to attend meetings apply not only to labor campaigns and related topics, but also to other political, civic, community, or fraternal organizations and issues. For example, employers accustomed to briefing employees on legislative matters that affect the business and encouraging them to lobby their representatives may conclude that such meetings are technically as problematic as the alleged “union busting” meetings targeted by supporters of the new bill.
It may also be necessary for employers to review and make updates to any established policies that may not be aligned with the expanded free speech rights provided to employees, such as social media policies, standard of conduct policies, or other workplace rules regulating employee conduct which address permissible speech.
Finally, employers may want to be aware of the restriction against requiring employees to attend meetings, the primary purpose of which is to discuss political or religious matters. This could include “state of the business” speeches, where attendance is required, and current events are discussed.