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California employers given guidance on harassment prevention training

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SAN FRANCISCO—Employers in California have gotten long-awaited clarification of legislation that requires them to provide sexual harassment prevention training, observers say.

The legislation, which became law in 2004, called for businesses with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of training and education to all supervisors by January 2006.

But the legislation "left a lot of open questions," said Wendy Lazerson, an attorney at Bingham McCutchen L.L.C. in East Palo Alto.

Among them were how the training should be scheduled, the trainers' qualifications and whether only California-based employees should be counted in determining which employers must conduct the training.

Following a long review process, the San Francisco-based Fair Employment and Housing Commission last month issued its final proposed regulations. The anti-harassment training rules are expected to become effective around Feb. 1, 2007, following their anticipated approval by the Office of Administrative Law and submission to the Secretary of State.

Observers say one issue clarified in the proposed regulations is how the training year is measured. The regulation gives employers two alternatives: An employer may track its training for each supervisory employee, measuring two years from the date of the individual's completion of his last training. Alternatively, an employer can designate a "training year" in which it trains some or all of its supervisors, and then must retrain the supervisors by the end of the next training year two years later.

With the latter option, employers "don't have to keep track of dozens, if not hundreds, of different dates for two-year cycles," although those who want to keep their individual supervisors on a strict calendar year basis still have that option, said a spokesman for the Sacramento-based California Chamber of Commerce.

The regulations also require that such training be conducted by qualified personnel who have either formal education and training or substantial experience.

Shanti Atkins, president and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based ELT Inc., which provides employment law training programs, said "a lot of self-proclaimed harassment prevention experts... sort of popped up for obvious reasons" immediately after the law was passed.

"This is something that clearly is not permissible under the (recently released) regulations," said Ms. Atkins.

The regulations and legislation signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also clarify that while employees in all locations will be counted in determining which firms must conduct the sexual harassment prevention training, it is required only of supervisors who are in California.

Maggie Martinez, human resources director at the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation said, "it has not been difficult at all" to comply with the legislation. The foundation, which works with San Francisco-based Workplace Answers Inc., a provider of Web-based training, has about 700 employees, she said.

Lynn Lieber, Workplace Answers' chief executive officer, said, though, that implementation of the legislation "has been quite burdensome for some people," because of the negative feelings generated by the time required for training and "just the logistics of rolling it out" for firms with large employee populations. "But I think it's very necessary and important," she added.

Ms. Lieber noted that Connecticut is the only other U.S. state that has comparable legislation.

"I think there's been a real dearth of guidance in training," despite federal laws that call for training in various areas. The California legislation "has actually been helpful, in a way, and I think more and more states are going to adopt something like this," said Ms. Lieber.