Colorado's POWR Act Significantly Expands Workplace Harassment Laws, Limits Nondisclosure Provisions, and Makes Numerous Other Changes to Employment Law

  • Colorado’s POWR Act discards the “severe or pervasive” standard for harassment claims, lowering the standard for such claims in Colorado.
  • The law also adds multiple conditions an employer must meet to enter into a nondisclosure agreement with employees.
  • Employers must also comply with robust record-keeping requirements for personnel and employment-related records.

On June 6, 2023, Governor Polis signed into law the Protecting Opportunities and Workers’ Rights (POWR) Act, which imposes far-reaching changes to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) and Colorado employment law generally. Among other material changes, the law redefines the standard for harassment claims, sets stringent requirements on nondisclosure provisions, adds marital status as a protected category under Colorado law, and includes new requirements on the storage of personnel records. Colorado employers should carefully review the requirements of this law as it may require modifications to preexisting policies, procedures, and agreements.

Harassment Claims Will Have a Lower Burden of Proof

Perhaps the most material change in the POWR Act is its redefining of harassment claims under Colorado law. Previously, Colorado had incorporated the definition of “harassment” under federal law, which required that for conduct to be considered harassment, it must be “severe or pervasive.” However, with the enactment of the POWR Act, the severe or pervasive standard no longer applies in Colorado. See SB 23-172 (“The conduct or communication need not be severe or pervasive to constitute a discriminatory or an unfair practice”). Rather, conduct that is “subjectively offensive to the individual alleging harassment and is objectively offensive to a reasonable individual who is a member of the same protected class” will be considered harassment under Colorado law. By eliminating the “severe or pervasive” standard and replacing it with one that requires only “offensive” conduct, the law substantially lowers the threshold for viable harassment claims under CADA.

Although this lower standard presents a major shift in the law, setting Colorado apart from federal law and the law of most states,1 there are still some guardrails in place to guide which claims may be actionable. Namely, the conduct at issue must fall in one of the three categories for a harassment claim to be viable:

  1. Submission to the conduct or communication is explicitly or implicitly made a term or condition of the individual’s employment; or
  2. Submission to, objection to, or rejection of the conduct or communication is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting the individual; or
  3. The conduct or communication has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Further, while the law expressly states that the frequency with which alleged harassment in the workplace is “not relevant” as to whether the conduct gives rise to a viable claim,  it also expressly states that “petty slights, minor annoyances, and lack of good manners do not constitute harassment unless the slights, annoyances, or lack of manners, when taken individually or in combination under the totality of the circumstances.”2 

Still, drawing the line between a “petty slight” and a comment that unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance will be challenging, and resolving that question will almost certainly lead to an increase in the number of harassment claims brought in Colorado.3

Limits on Affirmative Defenses for Harassment Claims

Besides broadening the definition of harassment, the POWR Act also limits the ability of employers to assert an affirmative defense to a harassment claim in cases where the employee alleges harassment by a supervisor. Specifically, the employer can only assert an affirmative defense to this type of claim if it meets each of the following requirements:

  • The employer has established a program that is reasonably designed to prevent harassment, deter future harassers, and protect employees from harassment. To make this showing, the employer must both “take prompt, reasonable action to investigate or address alleged discriminatory or unfair employment practices” and “take prompt, reasonable remedial actions, when warranted, in response to complaints of discriminatory or unfair employment practices.” In short, employers must both have a program to prevent and deter harassment and take appropriate action in response to complaints of discrimination in order to assert an affirmative defense; and
  • The employer has communicated the existence and details of how to make complaints to both its supervisory and nonsupervisory employees, such as through a handbook or policy; and
  • The employee has unreasonably failed to take advantage of this reporting program.

This formulation modifies the long-recognized Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense by requiring proof of a reasonable program to prevent harassment as well as proof of prompt and reasonable remedial actions to meritorious complaints. Employers can establish and publicize a program to deter harassment and a system in place to investigate harassment complaints in order to preserve their ability to assert an affirmative defense to a harassment claim.

Modified Framework for Disability Discrimination

The law also modifies the framework for disability discrimination claims. Previously, CADA provided that it was not a discriminatory practice for an employer to take an adverse employment action “if there is no reasonable accommodation that the employer can make with regard to the disability, the disability actually disqualifies the individual from the job, and the disability has a significant impact on the job.” (emphasis added). Under the POWR Act, the requirement that the disability had “a significant impact on the job” has been eliminated. The loosened standard now provides only that it is not a discriminatory practice for an employer to take an adverse employment action “if there is no reasonable accommodation that the employer can make with regard to the disability that would allow the individual to satisfy the essential functions of the job and the disability actually disqualifies the individual from the job.”

Marital Status as a Protected Category

The POWR Act also makes a number of material changes to Colorado employment law outside the context of harassment claims. For one, it adds “marital status” as a protected category in the employment context. Previously, marital status was protected under CADA in places of public accommodation, but such protections were limited in the employment context.4 Under the POWR Act, marital status is expressly protected in the employment context, meaning that employers cannot take any adverse action against an employee based on marital status.

Notably, though, the new law does not amend the provisions of the previous iteration of CADA, which states that it is not an unfair or discriminatory employment practice to discharge an employee or refuse to hire an applicant where “(A) One spouse directly or indirectly would exercise supervisory, appointment, or dismissal authority or disciplinary action over the other spouse; (B) One spouse would audit, verify, receive, or be entrusted with moneys received or handled by the other spouse; or (C) One spouse has access to the employer’s confidential information, including payroll and personnel records.”

Stringent Non-Disclosure Agreement Requirements

Another significant modification under the law is the addition of multiple, specifically enumerated requirements that must be met for a nondisclosure provision to be enforceable in the employment context. The POWR Act voids nondisclosure agreements entered into after its effective date that “limit[] the ability of the employee or prospective employee to disclose . . . any alleged discriminatory or unfair employment practice” unless the provision meets each of the following conditions:

  1. it applies equally to the employer and employee;
  2. it expressly states that it does not restrain the employee from disclosing the underlying facts of any alleged discriminatory or unfair employment practice5;
  3. it expressly states that disclosure of the underlying facts of any alleged discriminatory or unfair employment practice does not constitute disparagement;
  4. it provides that if the agreement contains a non-disparagement provision and the employer subsequently disparages the employee, the employer may not seek to enforce the non-disparagement or non-disclosure provisions or seek damages for an employee violating those provisions;
  5. any liquidated damages provision may not constitute a penalty or punishment and must provide for an amount of damages that is reasonable, proportionate, and not punitive; and
  6. the agreement contains an addendum, signed by all parties to the agreement, which attests to the compliance with each of the above requirements.

Not following the above stringent requirements would expose an employer to significant risks. Specifically, if an employee is simply presented with a noncompliant nondisclosure agreement, they may immediately sue the employer and recover penalties—each violation of the above requirements can incur a penalty of $5,000—including actual damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees. What’s more, an employee is permitted to support their punitive damages claim with evidence that the employer offered other employees nondisclosure agreements “involving the conduct of the same individual or individuals who are alleged in the action to have engaged in the discriminatory or unfair employment practice.”

Record-Keeping Requirements

The new law also requires an employer to maintain “any personnel or employment record” the employer made or received for at least five years and, with regard to complaints of discriminatory or unfair employment practices, to maintain those records in a designated repository.

“Personnel or employment records” are defined broadly to include (1) requests for accommodation; (2) employee complaints of discriminatory or unfair employment practices; (3) application forms submitted by applicants for employment; and (4) other records related to hiring, promotion, demotion, transfer, termination, rates of pay or other terms of compensation, and selection for training or apprenticeship, and records of training provided to or facilitated to employees.

Notably, the recordkeeping requirement as to complaints applies to all written or oral complaints of discriminatory or unfair employment practices, including the date of the complaint, the identity of the complaining party (if known), the identity of the alleged perpetrator, and the substance of the complaint.

Effective Date

The law is not retroactive. It applies to employment practices occurring on or after the effective date of the law, which is 90 days after the adjournment of the Colorado General Assembly. That means the effective date of the law is August 7, 2023.

What Does this Mean for Employers?

Given the more stringent standards set forth in the new law and its imminent effective date, employers should begin preparing now to ensure they are in full compliance. To preserve their affirmative defense to harassment claims, employers should ensure they have established and implemented a program to prevent and deter harassment, and to investigate any harassment claims that arise in the future.6 Employers should also consider revising agreements with nondisclosure provisions to comply with the specific rules laid out in the new law. Further, companies will need to implement new processes to retain personnel files and employment records for five years in compliance with the law’s record-keeping rules.

See Footnotes

1 California, Maryland, and New York have also modified or discarded the “severe or pervasive” standard in the context of harassment claims.

2 The law also enumerates factors to be considered under this totality of circumstances test to include (A) the frequency of the conduct or communication; (B) the number of individuals engaged in the conduct or communication; (C) the type or nature of the conduct or communication; (D) the duration of the conduct or communication; (E) the location where the conduct or communication occurred; (F) whether the conduct or communication is threatening; (G) whether any power differential exists between the individual alleged to have engaged in harassment and the individual alleging the harassment; (H) any use of epithets, slurs, or other conduct or communication that is humiliating or degrading; and (I) whether the conduct or communication reflects stereotypes about an individual or group of individuals in a protected class.

3 Indeed, a fiscal note on the POWR Act “assumes a 13 percent increase in case filings” due to the changes in the law.

4 See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-34-402(1)(h)(I).

5 This provision also requires that the employee be able to disclose such underlying discriminatory facts to an employee’s immediate family members, religious advisor, medical or mental health provider, mental or behavioral health therapeutic support group, legal counsel, financial advisor, or tax preparer, as well as to any local, state, or federal government agency, or in response to legal process, or all other purposes required by law. However, an employer may require that the employee first notify the employer about any disclosure to a government agency or in response to legal process.

6 Littler’s Investigation Toolkit may be of service to employers who need to implement or bolster such a program.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.