Metro-East News

Madison County approves new policies protecting transgender employees, marijuana use

There are new rules in place for Madison County employees, though county board members had concerns about some of the updates to the personnel handbook’s language.

Many of the changes approved Wednesday in Madison County’s policies were intended to clarify certain issues with more specific language. Others were intended to align county policy with existing state law, according to State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons.

The issue that caught some board members’ eye was adding the words “transgender status” to the county’s equal employment opportunity policy. The previous policy forbade discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, status as a Vietnam era veteran, sexual orientation, genetic information, Order of Protection status or any other protected characteristic as established by law. The new version clarifies that other protected veterans are included as well as the Vietnam veterans, and adds “transgender status.”

The new language uses the same terms as the Illinois Human Rights Act to reflect the categories protected under Illinois law, Gibbons said. It’s not an exact match; some language is different because it is a policy handbook, he said. But Gibbons said they have not added any new protections; transgender individuals are protected from discrimination under Illinois law.

“It’s smart to have our policy handbook reflect (state language),” Gibbons said.

A board member said he was concerned that the clause would open up the county to lawsuits, but Gibbons said lawsuits are exactly what the language is trying to prevent. Another board member questioned whether the categories of sex and sexual orientation would also protect transgender people and thus mentioning them would be redundant, but Gibbons said they are considered separate categories under the statute.

The measure was approved by a voice vote, after a motion to table failed to receive a second. A few members objected that they would have preferred to conduct a roll call vote to register their objections, but Chairman Alan Dunstan said a roll call vote is not necessary if the board is not spending money.

“I had several calls on this and I wanted to vote no,” said board member Judy Kuhn (R-Trenton).

Gibbons said regardless of whether the policy language said so, transgender individuals already have protection against discrimination under state law, but having the policy in place can help protect the county against lawsuits or limit the impact of lawsuits. However, he said there are no lawsuits regarding transgender discrimination currently pending against Madison County, and is not aware of any in the past.

Among other changes in the personnel policy:

* Unpaid interns are protected from sexual harassment the same as employees and will be informed of their rights.

* Rules concerning employee use of marijuana has been altered to comply with recent changes in state law to allow medical use of marijuana, which Gibbons said presents new challenges for workplaces with a zero-tolerance policy for drug use. Just as employees may legally drink alcohol but may not be drunk while working, similar guidelines will be drawn for those who qualify to use marijuana under the new state laws, Gibbons said.

* A new weapons policy was added to comply with the state’s new concealed-carry laws; Madison County still prohibits weapons of any kind in the workplace, but employees with concealed-carry permits may keep weapons in their cars under the requirements of the act. The policy does not apply to law enforcement and other employees who are required to be armed on duty.

* Policies regarding pregnant women now include more specific rights to ask for reasonable accommodations, including more frequent bathroom breaks, privacy for nursing mothers to express milk, the right to refuse an accommodation or leave that is not desired, periodic rest or modified work schedules, and other accommodations.

* New language was added to sections on workplace bullying and harassment; the Americans with Disabilities Act; compliance with the Smoke Free Illinois Act including prohibition of e-cigarettes inside county buildings; restrictions concerning employee use of social media; and forbidding the use of cell phones in cars in accordance with new state laws.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

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