Changes in Illinois employment laws Featured

5:41am EDT May 19, 2006
In the last 12 to 24 months the Illinois legislature has passed laws that range from preventing Illinois’ employers from discriminating against individuals based on sexual orientation to allowing leave for the family of military personnel. Some of the laws are new and others are revised versions of already existing laws.

“Illinois certainly has an activist governor in Rod Blagojevich and he and the legislature have come up with some ground-breaking statutes and laws,” says John Kuenstler, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg in Chicago.

Smart Business talked to Kuenstler about the importance of the new laws.

What led to the flurry of legislation?
No one factor led to these new or revised laws, but in many cases the Illinois legislature felt that it needed to respond to certain political or social issues to extend protections to new classes of employees. The acts were passed in the latter part of 2004 and through 2005, with many of them taking effect in 2005 or 2006. Here is a summary of those changes.

The Illinois Human Rights Act was amended to prohibit discrimination against employees due to their sexual orientation; which is broadly defined to include actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality or gender-related identity, whether or not traditionally associated with the individual’s designated sex at birth. The Human Rights Act has been in existence for years and it covers the typical categories of protections such as age, race, sex and disability. But in Illinois, certain municipalities had amended their local or municipal human rights acts to cover sexual orientation, and the Illinois legislature decided to similarly expand the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act amendment regarding sexual orientation is a sweeping piece of legislation which many Illinois employers may not be aware of, especially if they have operations in states that do not have similar protections.

The Family Military Leave Act requires certain Illinois employers to provide unpaid leave to qualified employees whose spouses or children are called to active military duty. There are different thresholds for employers of different sizes and those thresholds trigger different lengths of leave.

The law states that employees who have worked for the same employer for 12 months and at least 1,250 hours are entitled to take unpaid, job-protected leave to visit a spouse or child called to active duty. If an employer has between 15 and 50 employees, it is expected to provide up to 15 days of leave. If an employer has more than 50 employees, then it must provide up to 30 days of leave.

The law is not a copy of the federal military leave statute, but rather it attempts to provide protection to non-military employees who provide moral and emotional support to our military personnel.

The Criminal Identification Act makes it illegal for Illinois employers to ask employees or applicants for employment about sealed or expunged convictions and requires specific language in employment applications stating that applicants are not obligated to disclose such convictions.

The legislature is trying to eliminate any confusion regarding what criminal history must be disclosed to employers, typically when applying for a job. It’s been understood for some time that employers are not supposed to ask applicants for employment about arrest records, but that they can ask about convictions. The law clarifies this by stating that Illinois employers can’t ask about sealed or expunged convictions. However, it then goes a step further and says that employment applications in Illinois are required to contain specific language informing the applicant that they don’t have to disclose sealed or expunged convictions.

The Employee Blood Donation Leave Act requires employers in Illinois with 50 or more employees to provide employees with up to one hour of paid leave every 56 days to donate blood.

The Victims Economic Security and Safety Act requires Illinois employers of 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees that are victims of domestic or sexual violence or have a family member that is the victim of domestic violence. This act operates as a broad extension of legal rights and it contains protections that many Illinois employers are not aware exist.

A legal privilege protection against disclosure between a union representative and a bargaining unit member has been created by an amendment to the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. This means that a union agent can’t be compelled to disclose any information acquired during the performance of his or her union duties. The protection is similar to spousal, doctor-patient and attorney-client privileges. Illinois employers with unionized workforces will need to be aware that this new privilege may impact their communications with union agents.

John Kuenstler is a partner in the Labor and Employment Department at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Chicago. He can be reached at (312) 338-5924 or jkuenstler@btlaw.com