Captive Audience: Pro-Business or Anti-Business

May 18, 2011

An overarching goal throughout the 2011 legislative session has been to rebuild the state’s economy and establish Connecticut as a business friendly state. Governor Malloy even kicked off the session with the statement that “Connecticut is open for business” in an effort to make the economic future of our state a top priority.

But as the legislative session has progressed, many controversial bills concerning business and industry regulations have gone before members of the General Assembly for debate. One bill in particular, that drew an extreme 11 hour debate between members of the House of Representatives, is the captive audience bill. House Bill 5460, An Act Concerning Captive Audience Meetings, works to prohibit an employer from requiring employees to attend or participate in meetings sponsored by the employer concerning the employer’s views on religious or political matters.

The idea is that the bill will create limitations on issues discussed in the workplace. The legislation will affect and cover private sector, state and municipal employers but exempts any political and religious organizations. It should be noted that while employers cannot require their employees to attend certain meetings, employees are still permitted to discuss both politics and religion among themselves under the proposed bill.

The debate on the issue has become two sided – one side seeing this as a protection for employees and the other side seeing this bill as more anti-business legislation. Union members are strong proponents of this legislation stating that this bill protects workers from political influences surrounding public policy or elections, and that it also provides a means to advocate for the rights of workers. Proponents also state that this bill allows employees to unionize without fear of company retaliation.

On the other side of the debate are those that feel this proposal places more, unnecessary, mandates on business, further declining the state’s economy. Opponents have discussed the bill as too broad a restriction and say it would unreasonably limit a business’s ability to communicate with their employees, especially since these meetings are held within the normal paid work day. The argument is that the definition and intent of the bill could be taken to extremes making almost any topic off limits in a workplace meeting – including issues that are critical to the operation of a business. A situation sited by opponents has been, what will an engineering firm do if legislation is passed affecting the company’s ability to design products – will the business be restricted from holding a mandatory informational meeting? Others have also gone on to express concerns about the wording of the bill saying the language is too vague and leaves the door open to lawsuits.

Across the Unites States, only a handful of states have considered similar captive audience legislation, and even fewer – Oregon and Wisconsin – have passed it. Recently, though, this law was declared unconstitutional in the state of Wisconsin.

This bill now awaits final debate and vote in the State Senate.