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Parallax Education Clients Comply with Government Code 12950.1

California mandates sex-harass training; chains set to comply
by Dina Berta
National Restaurant News, Vol.39, No. 4 January 24, 2005

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(Jan. 24) – Some restaurant companies are gearing up to increase the frequency and quality of their sexual-harassment awareness training for supervisors in order to comply with a new California law.

While California, like the federal government, requires employers to provide harassment-free work environments, the state is going one step further by mandating training and regular refresher courses for managers.

The new law, signed this fall by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, amends the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act by requiring any employer of 50 or more workers to put its supervisors through a twohour, interactive training program on sexual harassment.The law also is being interpreted to include companies based outside of California with at least one person working in the state.

Training must be completed by Jan. 1, 2006, for supervisors hired or promoted by July 1. After Jan. 1, 2006, supervisors must be trained at least once every two years.

“What will be different for us is the revisiting every two years,” said Jeanne Scott, vice president of human resources for Irvine-based El Pollo Loco.

Every new El Pollo Loco employee, in both hourly and management positions, receives some sexual-harassment awareness information, she said.

New supervisors and managers also must attend a class where they watch a training video and discuss its content, Scott said. El Pollo Loco has more than 300 stores in four states.

“If we have to revisit [the training], we’ll find a way to do it,” she said.”I’m a supporter of [the law], anything that mandates training and education. I’d much rather educate people than have to deal with complaints and investigations and discipline.’

For some restaurant companies, particularly smaller ones, the law means they will have to find new or better training programs, humanresources professionals and labor lawyers said.

“For those [companies that are] doing this already, it will have no impact; but for those doing a half-baked job, it will have some impact,” said Monica Ballard, a human-resources consultant whose Santa Monica, California-based company, Parallax Education, develops harassment prevention- training materials for employers.

While the law does not define the word “interactive,” operators and industry observers are interpreting it to mean some type of activity that requires supervisors to analyze and respond to instruction.

“I think the intent here is not just to have people read a pamphlet and sign a piece of paper saying they were trained,” said Jot Condie, president and chief executive of the California Restaurant Association in Sacramento.”There needs to be give-and-take, two-way conversation or a Web-based approach that is interactive.”

The CRA had opposed the measure for creating yet another regulatory burden on restaurant owners, but once it passed, the association began to develop a sexual-harassment-awareness curriculum to offer its members.

The association and labor law firm Carlton, DiSante & Freudenberger are creating a program that could be taught at local community colleges to reduce the cost for smaller operators, Condie said.

“Our goal is to try to keep this as affordable and successful as possible,” he said.

The penalty for violating the law is mild-a company failing to do the training simply will be ordered to start training. But complying with the new regulation could help a company defend against sexual-harassment lawsuits, said Toni Oncidi, a labor lawyer in the Los Angeles office of the Proskauer Rose law firm.

An employer does not want to be in a position in which a former employee’s lawyer could tell a jury that the company violated state law, Oncidi said.

“It doesn’t provide you with immunity from a lawsuit, but it tells a jury the employer at least takes [the issue] seriously,” he said.

Typically, cases involve a rogue supervisor who harasses an employee, and the employer does not know what is going on, Oncidi explained. But a company has a better defense if it can show that the manager attended a sexual-harassment training session and took an exam that demonstrated he understood the requirements of the law.

“What you’d like to do is distance yourself from that supervisor and to be able to say,`We knew nothing about this; it’s contrary to our policy and contrary to the standards we impose,'” Oncidi said.

He expects the law to affect smaller companies that haven’t been training supervisors and larger restaurant chains that haven’t offered the training repeatedly to managers.

For San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which annually puts its store managers through a sexual-harassment course, the new law will have little impact, said Wendy Jewell, executive director of human resources for the parent company of nearly 100 Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation buffet restaurants in 15 states.

“This is barely a blip on the radar screen for us,” Jewell said. For the past several years, representatives from the HR department along with senior executives, including at times chief executive Michael Mack, have gone on annual “road shows,” Jewell explained. They visit stores, meet with general managers and conduct training classes and leadership-development sessions.

This year the company plans to train its general managers to conduct the sexual-harassment training, Jewell said.