Private Connecticut employers must be careful about imposing their political or religious views on their employees, as a result of a new restriction on employer speech that took effect July 1, 2022. While apparently intended to target union opposition, the law has much broader application.
Titled “An Act Protecting Employee Freedom of Speech and Conscience,” the law has largely been discussed and presented in the media and on other blogs as targeting “captive audience meetings,” in which employers would address the union organizing process and present their case for why a union may not be beneficial for their employees. In prior years, the Connecticut attorney general had advised that a law specifically prohibiting employers from requiring employees to attend those meetings was likely to be invalidated on the grounds that it was preempted by the federal National Labor Relations Act.
The Connecticut legislature therefore went broader – much broader – and tacked a passing reference to unions on to what is now a law that grants Connecticut employees a protected right to refuse to:
- attend any employer-sponsored meeting, or
- otherwise listen to or view communications,
that are primarily intended to communicate the employer’s opinion on religious or political matters. If you want to know more about the union organizing implications of this law, I encourage you to read the articles posted by Ogletree Deakins and Littler on the subject. I instead want to focus on the scope of the law beyond the union context.
“Political matters” are defined to include elections, political parties, proposed legislation or regulations, and “the decision to join or support any political party or political, civic, community, fraternal or labor organization.” “Religious matters” are defined to relate to religious affiliation and practice and the decision to join or support any religious organization or association. Employers who discipline or threaten to discipline an employee for refusing to attend an employer meeting or listen to or view a communication on one of these subjects are liable to the employee for gross loss of wages, costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.
Given the breadth of the law’s opening language and the potential chilling effect on workplaces as employers parse what comprises political or religious speech, the law offers a few limited and somewhat vague exceptions, to exclude communications:
- of legally required information;
- of information that is necessary for employees to perform their job;
- that are part of coursework, symposia or an academic program involving an institution of higher education;
- amounting to casual, non-mandatory conversations between employees or with an agent or representative of the employer; or
- that are limited to the employer’s managerial and supervisory employees.
Religious organizations also are generally exempt from the act with regard to speech to employees on religious matters.
This is a somewhat frought time for employers to face restrictions on what they can communicate pertaining to political and religious views. Some employers, wrestling with the Supreme Court’s recent abortion decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. and employee reactions to that decision, have been modifying their benefit programs, holding support sessions, or otherwise communicating perspectives related to abortion. In Connecticut, these employers now need to ensure that their messaging and meetings steer clear of the restrictions imposed by the new “freedom of speech and conscience protections.”
And similarly, as we head into a contentious election year, Connecticut employers must be extra cautious about not requiring or pressuring employees to attend meetings the employer may host with politicians, and in reviewing any communications the employer may make on the elections, legislative proposals, and other political issues. It often is not a good practice for employers to impose their political views on employees – it can hurt morale and may not serve any business purpose. But when “political matters” are defined to include both proposed legislation or regulations – which often do pertain quite directly to business issues – and arguably more innocuous or even desirable actions like “get out the vote” drives that are not specific to any one political party, employers need to undertake careful calculations to ensure their conduct is not deemed to run afoul of the free speech law. Those employers who are uncertain how to proceed should consult with legal counsel.
By Tracey I. Levy