TIME MAG: NEW LAWS TARGET WORKPLACE BULLYING

Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2010


TIME MAGAZINE

Case Study

New Laws Target Workplace Bullying

By Adam Cohen
There are some very important things they don’t tell you on career day. Chief among them is that there is a good chance that at some point during your working adult life you will have an abusive boss — the kind who uses his or her authority to torment subordinates. Bullying bosses scream, often with the goal of humiliating. They write up false evaluations to put good workers’ jobs at risk. Some are serial bullies, targeting one worker and, when he or she is gone, moving on to their next victim.

Bosses may abuse because they have impossibly high standards, are insecure or have not been properly socialized. But some simply enjoy it. Recent brain-scan research has shown that bullies are wired differently. When they see a victim in pain, it triggers parts of their brain associated with pleasure. (See 10 ways your job will change.)

Worker abuse is a widespread problem — in a 2007 Zogby poll, 37% of American adults said they had been bullied at work — and most of it is perfectly legal. Workers who are abused based on their membership in a protected class — race, nationality or religion, among others — can sue under civil rights laws. But the law generally does not protect against plain old viciousness.

That may be about to change. Workers’ rights advocates have been campaigning for years to get states to enact laws against workplace bullying, and in May they scored their biggest victory. The New York state senate passed a bill that would let workers sue for physical, psychological or economic harm due to abusive treatment on the job. If New York’s Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, workers who can show that they were subjected to hostile conduct — including verbal abuse, threats or work sabotage — could be awarded lost wages, medical expenses, compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages.

Not surprisingly, many employers oppose the bill. They argue that it would lead to frivolous lawsuits and put them at risk for nothing more than running a tight ship and expecting a lot from their workers. But supporters of the law point out that it is crafted to cover only the most offensive and deliberate abuse. The bill requires that wrongful conduct be done with “malice,” and in most cases that it has to be repeated. It also provides affirmative defenses for companies that investigate promptly and address the problem in good faith. (See “When Bullying Goes Criminal.”)

The New York state assembly is expected to take up the bill next year. At least 16 other states are considering similar bills, and some employment-law experts think antibullying legislation may have real momentum now.

Legislatures are not the only ones standing up to bullies. In 2008, the Indiana supreme court struck a blow against workplace bullying when it upheld a $325,000 verdict against a cardiovascular surgeon. A medical technician who operated a heart and lung machine during surgery accused the surgeon of charging at him with clenched fists, screaming and swearing. The formal legal claims were intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault, but the plaintiff argued it as a bullying case, and had an expert on workplace bullying testify at trial.

Ideally, employers should rein in abusive bosses on their own, but that rarely happens. Many bullies are close to powerful people in the organization and carefully target less powerful ones. When John Bolton was nominated to be ambassador to the U.N. by President George W. Bush, a former subordinate told the Senate that Bolton was a “serial abuser” and — in a phrase that has since entered the bullying lexicon — a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” (See “How Not to Raise a Bully.”)

There are reasons workplace bullying may be getting worse now, including the bad economy. In good times, abused workers can simply walk out on a job if they are being mistreated. But with unemployment at around 9.5%, and five job seekers for every available job, many employees feel they have no choice but to stay put.

Another factor is the decline of organized labor. Unions were once a worker’s front-line defense against an abusive boss. If a supervisor was out of line, the shop steward would talk to him — on behalf of all of the workers. But union membership has fallen from 35% of the workforce in the 1950s to under 13% today, and some unions are less aggressive than they once were. (See what to do if you have a bad boss.)

That leaves litigation. There seems to be a strong constituency for laws allowing workers to sue over workplace abuse. The vote on the Healthy Workplace Bill was bipartisan and not close: New York state senators favored it 45 to 16.

If states enact laws of this kind and lawsuits begin to be filed, juries are far more likely to sympathize with the bullied worker than the bullying boss — and damages awards could be large. There is one easy way for employers to head all of this off: get more serious about rooting out abusive bosses before serious damage is done.

Cohen, a lawyer, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2005358,00.html#ixzz11RYkRH00

ILO: U.S.DOMESTIC WORKERS TO GET A DAY OFF?

International Labor Organization’s World of Work Magazine

#68 – April 2010

Decent work for domestic workers

NEW YORK – According to the US census there are currently over two million people engaged in domestic service in the United States – a number that is probably a significant underestimate. Overworked, underpaid and, until fairly recently, isolated, domestic workers do not even have the right to organize, clinging to the coat tails of labour federations to see their few rights defended.

The plight of domestic workers caring for the sick and the elderly is of particular concern. According to a recent report by the Alliance for Retired Americans, the American Association for People with Disabilities, and the labour federations AFL-CIO and “Change to Win”, roughly half of all home-care workers work full time year round. They are twice as likely as other workers to receive food stamps and to lack health insurance, while one in five lives below the poverty level.

According to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a leading labour organization, 90 per cent of home-care workers are female, and one in four heads a household with children. “These people are engaged in essential work that enables others to go out and make a living,” says Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United (DWU) a grassroots organization based in New York, “and yet they are denied a living themselves.”

The last time US labour law was changed to expand coverage for domestic workers was in 1974 with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), but employees providing “companionship services” to the aged and disabled were left out (“exempted” in the language of the document) – deemed too casual and informal for legal protection. Since 1974 the world has changed, and both the numbers of home-care workers and the services they provide have grown, but the law has failed to grow with them.

The last time the FLSA’s so-called domestic worker “exemption” was challenged was in 2007 when the Supreme Court ruled that home health-care workers were not eligible for the overtime and minimum wage protections extended to others. And the domestic worker exemption is but one of a list of similar exclusions. As already mentioned, domestic workers in the United States have no right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). They have no protection under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). They have no protection under civil rights laws.

… Last summer fifteen US senators sent an open letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, calling for the repeal of the exemption, and arguing in favour of a national minimum wage and the extension of federal overtime requirements to domestic workers. Solis, the daughter of an immigrant domestic worker herself, has been supportive of the idea of scrapping the exemption, referring to it as a “loophole” which should be closed.

How soon that will happen is anyone’s guess, but domestic workers may not have to wait for Congress to get round to changing the law because change may be coming state by state, starting in New York where a comprehensive Domestic Worker Bill of Rights looks set to pass in the State Senate in the coming month or so. If passed the legislation will grant housekeepers, nannies and caregivers the same rights that the majority of US labour enjoys, notably: time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 hours per week; one day off per 7-day calendar week; a limited number of paid vacation days, holidays, and sick days; advance notice of termination or severance pay in lieu of notice. The bill will also give domestic workers the ability to sue employers where these provisions are not met. The bill has been debated within the State legislature for more than six years, and has already passed in the State Assembly. The State Governor has pledged to sign legislation once it reaches his desk.

“It’s going to put domestic workers on an equal footing with everyone else,” says DWU’s Gonzalez, one of the activists who have been fighting for change for a number of years. “The new laws are also going to send a strong message to the work force about being recognized and protected under the law.” Some domestic workers are already getting the message.

“The Bill of Rights will put an end to decades and decades of exploitation,” says Patricia Francois, a nanny who spent six-and-a-half years looking after the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan couple until she was fired in December of 2008 after an altercation (Francois claims that her employer punched her in the face, a claim the employer disputes).

For Francois the importance of the bill goes beyond any specific rights it may include. “It will give us back our dignity and respect,” she says.

And the bill’s impact will not be limited to New York. Andrea Cristina Mercado, Lead Organizer of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a group of San Francisco/Oakland-based activists – says that as a result of the New York campaign, MUA has decided to push for a legislative Bill of Rights campaign in California. “This year we are going to be introducing a resolution in support of domestic workers at the State level and we are hoping that will help us build momentum for a legislative campaign in 2011,” she says. The last time groups like MUA tried to effect change in California was in January 2006 when they managed to get the so-called “Nanny Bill” introduced in the California Assembly.

The bill was passed by the Assembly and the Senate but was then vetoed by the Governor of California. This time Mercado believes things will be different: “In 2006 we were just focused on rights for overtime and fines for abusive employers,” she says. “This time, we will take an approach similar to the one used in New York and will be going for a comprehensive Bill of Rights, an inspiring platform that gets people stirred up.”

And it is not just the approach to campaigning that has changed. The big difference between now and 2006 is that grass-roots domestic labour movements in the United States have become organized. Domestic workers may be banned from forming a union, but there is nothing to stop cooperatives and associations coming together to exchange information and develop strategy. And this is exactly what they have been doing, beginning in June of 2007 when a small group of domestic workers came together at a National Domestic Worker Gathering in Atlanta, Georgia. On the last day of the gathering the participants took the decision to form a National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) to give domestic workers a voice and to draw attention to their plight. “There were all these local campaigns and initiatives going on, but we wanted to create a coherent whole – and not to have to reinvent the wheel each time,” says NDWA lead organizer Jill Shenker.

The basic idea behind the NDWA was that domestic workers in one state could learn lessons from their counterparts in another; the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights is the first indication of how powerful that approach can be. “The California coalition has been inspired by what their sisters in New York have achieved,” says Shenker, reporting that a comprehensive bill called the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (CDWBR) has already been drawn up. The NDWA has also provided the participants with a sense of connection and of course empowerment. “We are not just about tinkering with the labour code,” says Shenker. “What we’re trying to do is build a social movement.”

… Founded by 13 organizations, the NDWA now comprises over 30, and it is only a matter of time before other states, notably Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington pick up the Bill of Rights idea. “We’re really excited about what’s coming down the pipeline,” says DWU’s Gonzalez. “Everyone is watching what is happening in Albany.” Soon they’ll be watching what happens in California.

SAMPLE BULLYING POLICY

Workplace Bully Policy

Ideally an employer would build upon this template, adding important  details, such as which company representative is designated to receive employee complaints and where an employee can go to find  moreinformation. 

Company X considers workplace bullying unacceptable and will not tolerate it in any circumstances.

Workplace bullying is behaviour that harms, intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates an employee, possibly in front of other employees, clients or customers. Workplace bullying may cause the loss of trained and talented employees, reduce productivity and morale and create legal risks.

Company X believes all employees should be able to work in an environment free of bullying. Managers and supervisors must ensure employees are not bullied.

Company X has grievance and investigation procedures to deal with workplace bullying. Any reports of workplace bullying will be treated seriously and investigated promptly, confidentially and impartially.

Company X encourages all employees to report workplace bullying.

Managers and supervisors must ensure employees who make complaints, or witnesses, are not victimized.

Disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who bullies a co-employee. Discipline may involve a warning, transfer, counselling, demotion or dismissal, depending on the circumstances.

The contact person for bullying at this workplace is:

Name:______________________________________________

Phone Number: _______________________________________

* Adapted by the Ontario Safety Association for Community & Healthcare from the Commission of Occupational Safety and Health, Government of Western Australia. (Toronto, Canada, 2009)

Other Federal Laws

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT OF 1970

Some experts say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should take the lead on combating workplace bullying.*  There is overwhelming evidence that workplace bullying can lead to serious injury and even death.  In fact, a term has been coined for workers who are driven to suicide as a result of bullying – “bullycide.”  In several other countries, workplace bullying is considered a health and safety issues and is regulated by a federal agency like OSHA. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in May 2011 adopted a safety program for its own workers that includes a workplace anti-bully policy. The policy is contained in a 278-page document, the OSHA Field Health and Safety Manual,  which outlines safety practices for OSHA’s field offices. It was drafted in cooperation with the National Council of Field Labor Locals, a union that represents OSHA workers.

OSHA’s workplace bullying policy is significant because the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees … .” However, OSHA has not enforced that provision with respect to workplace bullying.

The stated purpose of the workplace bullying policy adopted by OSHA for its own workers,  contained in the manual’s “Violence in the Workplace” chapter. is: ”To provide a workplace that is free from violence, harassment, intimidation, and other disruptive behavior.”

Here is the OSHA General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) SEC. 5:

Duties

(a) Each employer —

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees …

*See Susan Harthill. “The Need for a Revitalized Regulatory Scheme to Address Workplace Bullying in the United States: Harnessing the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 78.4 (2010): 1250-1306.

WAGE AND HOUR LAWS

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address workplace bullying per se but it can be used to combat certain types of abuse. The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. Covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek.  The FLSA is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division  If one aspect of the bullying campaign is failure to pay proper wages or overtime, for example, the FLSA is one potential remedy.

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT

The National Labor Relations Act  (NLRA) was passed in 1935 to protect the right of employees in the private sector to create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining and to take part in strikes. The act is also known as the Wagner Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Robert F. Wagner.  The act is regulated by the National Labor Relations Board.

 Specifically, the National Labor Relations Board protects the rights of employees to engage in “protected concerted activity,”  which is when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms and conditions of employment.  A single employee may also engage in protected concerted activity if he or she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action.

A few examples of protected concerted activities are:

  • Two or more employees addressing their employer about improving their pay.
  • Two or more employees discussing work-related issues beyond pay, such as safety concerns, with each other.
  • An employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions.

Most employees in the private sector are covered by the NLRA. However, the Act specifically excludes individuals who are employed by federal, state, or local governments, agricultural laborers, some close relatives of the employer, domestic servants in a home, independent contractors, employers subject to the Railway Labor Act, etc.

FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT

The Familiy and Medical Leave Act (FMLA offers potential help for employees who are suffering health effects from workplace abuse.  Administered by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, it  entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled to:

Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:

-the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;

-the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;

-to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;

a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job;

– any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty;” or

Twenty-six workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness who is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin to the employee (military caregiver leave).