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Understanding the POWR Act: A Comprehensive Overview of Key Changes

    On August 7, the Protecting Opportunities and Workers’ Rights (POWR) Act came into effect, marking a significant transformation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). This comprehensive legislation, enacted during the 2023 Colorado legislative session, brings substantial changes to employment-related laws and practices. In this article, we delve into the major alterations introduced by the POWR Act and their implications for businesses operating in Colorado.

    Removal of the “Severe or Pervasive” Requirement


    Historically, workplace harassment claims, both in Colorado and federally under Title VII, required individuals to demonstrate that the alleged discriminatory conduct was “severe or pervasive.” This standard necessitated a showing that the workplace was permeated with conduct significant enough to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. Courts, in assessing the severity or pervasiveness, considered factors such as frequency, physical threat or humiliation, and interference with work performance.

    Key Changes

    The POWR Act fundamentally alters this landscape by eliminating the “severe or pervasive” requirement. This marks a departure from the stringent criteria that existed, allowing Colorado workers to prevail on employment-related harassment and discrimination claims with a significantly reduced burden of proof. The Act introduces a new standard outlined in subsection (1.3) of C.R.S. § 24-34-402.

    Under the POWR Act, harassment is considered unlawful if the conduct is subjectively offensive to the individual alleging harassment and objectively offensive to a reasonable person of the same protected class. Three specific conditions define when such conduct violates the statute:

    1. Submission as a Condition of Employment: When submission to the conduct is explicitly or implicitly made a term or condition of the individual’s employment.
    2. Basis for Employment Decisions: When submission to, objection to, or rejection of the conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting the individual.
    3. Unreasonable Interference: When the conduct has the purpose of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.


    The removal of the “severe or pervasive” requirement signifies a more inclusive approach to defining harassment. It acknowledges that even isolated instances of offensive conduct, if meeting the specified criteria, can be considered unlawful. While the Act broadens the scope of what constitutes harassment, it’s crucial to note that it does not create a general civility statute. Petty slights, minor annoyances, and lack of good manners are only deemed unlawful if they meet the standards set forth in the Act. The totality of the circumstances test remains in place, ensuring that conduct must still meet specific criteria to be considered harassment under the POWR Act. This shift in the burden of proof has significant implications for both employees seeking recourse and employers navigating the evolving landscape of workplace regulations in Colorado.

    Affirmative Defense for Employers

    Faragher-Ellerth Affirmative Defense

    The POWR Act introduces a crucial element for employers in the form of the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense. This defense, which was previously recognized by courts but is now explicitly governed by the statute in subsection (1.5), provides a tool for employers to shield themselves from liability in harassment claims.

    Criteria for the Defense

    To avail themselves of the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense, employers must implement anti-harassment policies that meet specific criteria. These criteria, outlined in the POWR Act, include:

    1. Establishing a Complaint Channel: Employers must establish an appropriate channel for employees to submit complaints of alleged discriminatory or unfair employment practices.
    2. Prompt and Reasonable Action: The employer is tasked with taking prompt, reasonable action to investigate or address the complaint.
    3. Remedial Action: In cases where the complaint and investigation warrant it, the employer must take prompt, reasonable remedial action.
    4. Communication: The anti-harassment policy must be fully communicated to both supervisory and nonsupervisory employees.


    The introduction of the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense provides employers with a proactive mechanism to mitigate liability in cases where harassment claims arise. By meeting the specified criteria in their anti-harassment policies, employers can establish a robust defense that demonstrates their commitment to addressing and preventing workplace harassment. This not only helps in legal defense but also fosters a workplace culture that values the well-being of employees and takes tangible steps to ensure a harassment-free environment.

    Employers are encouraged to carefully craft and communicate anti-harassment policies that align with the POWR Act’s criteria. Doing so not only safeguards against potential legal consequences but also contributes to creating a workplace environment that prioritizes inclusivity, respect, and adherence to evolving employment standards in Colorado.

    Expansion of Protected Classes

    The POWR Act goes beyond addressing harassment and discrimination by extending protections to additional classes of individuals. Among the notable changes is the inclusion of “marital status” as a legally protected class in Colorado. This expansion reflects a commitment to fostering inclusivity and safeguarding individuals against discrimination based on their marital status.

    Legal Implications

    With the addition of marital status as a protected class, employers, labor organizations, and employment agencies are obligated to update their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. These policies should explicitly include marital status as a listed protected class, ensuring comprehensive coverage against discriminatory practices.

    Practical Considerations

    For businesses operating in Colorado, the practical implications of this expansion involve a thorough review and modification of existing policies. Job postings, employee handbooks, and other relevant documentation should be revised to incorporate marital status alongside existing protected classes such as race, color, national origin, disability, creed, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

    Workplace Culture and Diversity

    The inclusion of marital status as a protected class not only addresses legal compliance but also promotes a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusivity. Employers are encouraged to foster an environment where individuals feel respected and protected, regardless of their marital status. This contributes to building a more equitable and harmonious workplace.

    Employee Training

    To ensure that all employees are aware of the expanded protected classes, employers should provide training sessions that cover the updated policies. This proactive approach not only enhances compliance but also creates awareness and understanding among employees about the importance of respecting individuals’ marital status in the workplace.

    3.5 Legal Safeguards

    For employers, understanding and implementing these changes is not only a legal obligation but also a strategic move to safeguard against potential legal consequences. By staying informed about the expanded protected classes and adapting policies accordingly, businesses can create a more resilient and legally compliant foundation for their operations in Colorado.

    Modified Safe Harbor for Disability-Related Decisions

    The POWR Act introduces significant changes to how employers can make employment decisions related to a worker’s disability. The modified safe harbor provision provides employers with a clearer framework for assessing the suitability of disabled individuals for positions or training programs.

    Shift in Assessment Criteria

    Under the new framework, employers may evaluate a disabled individual’s suitability based on two key criteria:

    1. Reasonable Accommodation: Employers are required to assess whether there exists no reasonable accommodation that would allow the disabled worker to satisfy the essential functions of the job.
    2. Disqualification due to Disability: Employers can consider whether the disability actually disqualifies the individual from the job.

    Removal of Third Prong

    Notably, the modified safe harbor standard removes the previously required third prong, which assessed whether the disability had a significant impact on the job. This streamlined approach simplifies the evaluation process for employers, providing clarity on the factors they can consider in making employment decisions related to workers with disabilities.

    Implications for Employers

    For employers, this modified safe harbor provision offers a more nuanced and practical approach to disability-related decisions. It enables them to make informed assessments based on the specific capabilities of the individual and the requirements of the job, without being burdened by an additional criterion of significant impact.

    Compliance and Legal Considerations

    Employers should update their policies and procedures to align with the modified safe harbor provision. This includes ensuring that decision-makers are aware of the revised criteria and that assessments are conducted in accordance with the new framework. Staying compliant with these changes not only minimizes legal risks but also promotes a fair and inclusive workplace.

    Impact on Employment Agencies

    The modified safe harbor standard also extends to employment agencies that refuse to list or refer a disabled individual for a position. Agencies must consider the absence of reasonable accommodation and the disqualification of the individual due to the disability when making such decisions.

    Recordkeeping Requirements under the POWR Act

    The POWR Act not only introduces substantive changes to employment laws but also imposes new recordkeeping obligations on employers. These requirements, outlined in C.R.S. Section 24-34-408, aim to enhance transparency and accountability in the workplace.

    Preservation of Personnel and Employment Records

    Under the POWR Act, employers are obligated to maintain all personnel or employment records that they made, received, or kept for at least five years. This retention period begins from the later of two events: the creation or receipt of the record, or the personnel action to which the record pertains or the final disposition of a charge of discrimination.

    Inclusions in Personnel or Employment Records

    The scope of personnel or employment records encompasses a broad range of documents related to various aspects of employment, including:

    • Discrimination and unfair employment practices complaints
    • Job application forms
    • Records related to hiring, promotion, demotion, transfer, layoff, termination
    • Records related to rates of pay or other terms of compensation
    • Records related to selection for training or apprenticeship
    • Records or training provided to employees

    New Requirement: Repository of Complaints

    In addition to the general recordkeeping requirements, the POWR Act introduces a novel obligation for employers to maintain a repository of all written or oral complaints of discriminatory or unfair employment practices. This repository must be preserved for the same five-year period, contributing to a more thorough documentation of workplace concerns.

    Legal Significance

    The recordkeeping requirements serve multiple purposes. They provide a historical record of employment decisions, actions taken in response to complaints, and overall employment practices. From a legal standpoint, these records can be crucial in defending against potential claims of discrimination or unfair employment practices. Adherence to these requirements demonstrates a commitment to transparency and compliance with the evolving legal landscape.

    Practical Implications for Employers

    To comply with these recordkeeping obligations, employers should establish robust systems for the creation, storage, and retrieval of relevant documents. This includes implementing procedures for cataloging complaints, maintaining organized records, and ensuring accessibility for auditing or legal purposes.

    Employee Awareness

    Employers should also communicate the existence of these recordkeeping practices to employees, fostering transparency about how their information is handled and documented. This can contribute to a sense of accountability and trust within the workforce.

    The POWR Act brings substantial changes to Colorado’s employment landscape, impacting how businesses approach harassment claims, handle disabilities, and maintain records. Companies operating in the state must familiarize themselves with these amendments to ensure compliance and mitigate potential legal risks.

    Disclaimer: This article provides general guidance and information. HR managers should consult with legal experts to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local laws when implementing these strategies.