Another Defeat for Healthy Workplace Bill

TIME FOR A NEW APPROACH

The decade-long strategy of adopting state-by-state legislation to deal with workplace bullying in the United States has suffered yet another defeat.

The Maine House of Representatives recently voted 87-56 to sustain Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill aimed at bullying in the workplace that had been adopted by Maine’s legislature.

 The bill, which was supported by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), directed the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board to study psychological and physical harm employees suffer due to abusive work environments. 

 In his veto message, the governor said the study was unnecessary because the Workers’ Compensation Board already provides benefits to employees who suffer physical and psychological injuries on the job.

 Maine was the 24th state to consider some version of the WBI’s proposed  Healthy Workplace Bill  but no state has yet to adopt it.

 This blog advocates a federal and national solution to the problem of workplace bullying, which affects one in every three or four workers in the United States. So far about 8,000 targets of workplace bullying have signed a petition demanding action from the Obama Administration.

 Ruth and Gary Namie, founders of the WBI, have led  a decade-long campaign to pass proposed legislation called The Healthy Workplace Bill.

 Drafted by Suffolk University Law Professor David Yamada, the bill was overhauled earlier this year after criticism by workplace anti-bully advocates that it offered far less protection to targets of workplace bullying than similar legislation in other countries.  

The Namies, who aggressively market consulting services and book sales on the WBI web site,  and Mr. Yamada, who formed an organization called The New Workplace Institute, have not cooperated with other workplace anti-bully advocates who formed a coalition last year (Protect US Workers) to  support a federal solution to workplace bullying.

America lags far behind Europe, Canada, Australia and many other industrialized countries in protecting workers from bullying, which is widely considered to be a health-harming form of workplace violence..

 

Somewhat Improved Healthy Workplace Bill

… But Still Needs Work

The heretofore anemic  Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has received a dose of iron in its latest iteration in Massachusetts.

The version of the  HWB subpumping ironmitted for consideration to the Massachusetts’ legislature omits  the  $25,000 cap on damages for targets who were not subjected to demotion or dismissal.

The Workplace Bullying Institute has pushed the HWB, written by Suffolk University Law Professor David C. Yamada,  for more than a decade as part of state-by-state campaign to pass workplace anti-bullying legislation.  More than 20 states have considered the HWB bill since  2002 but none as yet have adopted it.  This year the bill is under consideration in about a half dozen states.

International scholars criticized the HWB in recent years because it was far less protective of targets of workplace bullying than laws and regulations of other industrialized countries.

This blog criticized the HWB’s  requirements that targets prove malice and psychological damage (the latter was expressly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in federal anti-discrimination laws) and the unreasonably low cap on damages.

The revised bill still defines an abusive work environment as one where “an employer or one or more of its employees, acting with intent to cause pain or distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both.”

How would one go about providing that a  bully acted “with intent to cause pain  or distress?”  I have no idea. Suggestions?

In addition,  workplace bullying almost always involves psychological harm. The bill’s requirement to prove psychological harm penalizes poor people and members of minority groups who tend to visit mental health professionals far less frequently for monetary or cultural reasons.  In addition, this approach was explicitly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as a requirement in race and sex  discrimination cases involving a hostile workplace . (Harris v. Forklift System510 U.S. 17 (1993)).

The proposed  Massachusetts bill,  sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark.

A far better alternative to the problem of workplace bullying has been proposed by State Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom of Nevada.

Segerblom proposed extending the umbrella of  discrimination laws to protect any worker who is exposed to a “hostile work environment.”  Currently, only workers who have protected status under these laws by virtue of their race, sex, national original, etc. are protected.

If an employer or an employee are held to be in violation of the law, the Massachusetts bill  provides  that a court can  order any relief that is “deemed appropriate, including, but not limited to: reinstatement, removal of the offending party from the complainant’s work environment, back pay, front pay, medical expenses, compensation for pain and suffering, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.”

According to the proposed bill, an abusive workplace environment is one where “an employer or one or more its employees, acting with intent to cause pain or distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both.”

Abusive conduct involves “acts, omissions, or both, that a reasonable person would find abusive, based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct … .”  This includes but is not limited to:

  • repeated verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets;
  • verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature;
  • or the sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance.

The proposed Massachusetts bill continues to distinguish between targets of  bullying who have and have not been subjected to an adverse employment action (i.e., demotion or dismissal).  The cap is gone but the latter still cannot  recover from the employer  damages for  emotional distress or punitive damages unless the “actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.” This limitation does not apply to “individually named defendants.”  Thus, an employee who did not suffer an adverse employment action can only seek monetary damages from bully unless the actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.

The bill also prohibits retaliation against targets who complain and anyone else who testifies, assists or participates in an investigation of workplace bullying.

The stated purpose of the Massachusetts bill is to provide a “legal incentive for employers” to prevent and respond to abusive treatment of employers at work.

Under the bill, it is  an “aggravating factor” if the abusive conduct exploits an employee’s known psychological or physical illness or disability. In that case, a single act that is “especially severe and egregious” would be actionable.

Employers  can escape liability by showing they exercised “reasonable care to prevent and correct  promptly any actionable behavior; and, the complainant employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of appropriate preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

Also, employers cannot be penalized if the complaint is based on an adverse employment action made for poor performance, misconduct or economic necessity, a reasonable performance evaluation or “an employer’s reasonable investigation about potentially illegal or unethical activity.”

The bill would require an employee to  file an action within a year of  the last act that constitutes the alleged violation.

Other Options to Halt Workplace Bullying

After a decade, questions are being raised about whether the state-by-state campaign to pass the so-called Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) is a realistic solution to the epidemic of workplace bullying in the United States.

This blog suggested last fall that it was time to think about options other than the HWB,  which was first proposed a decade ago and has yet be adopted by any of the 20 states that have considered it. I proposed that the U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis empanel a task force to study the problem and propose new legislation on how to best address the problem of workplace bullying nationally.

The Vermont Senate has thrown out efforts to pass the HWB in that state and voted to create a task force to determine the best way to provide relief and redress for state residents suffering in abusive work environments.   Senate Bill 52 suggests looking at different models to remedy workplace bullying, including:

  • Create a private right of action that would include the recovery of damages (like the HWB).
  • Create a mechanism for injunctive relief similar to those relating to stalking, hate crimes, or relief-from-abuse orders.
  • State enforcement similar to the employment discrimination law.
  • State enforcement by the Vermont occupational safety and health administration.

Gary Namie, the director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, this week issued a defense of the HWB  which the institute has supported since it was drafted by Suffolk University Law Professor David Yamada in 2002.

Namie primarily argues the HWB’s private right of action is best because it is “revenue neutral” and won’t burden states financially.

For the following reasons, I support a different approach:

  •  Proponents of the HWB have been advocating for a decade to pass the HWB in individual states. Twenty states have considered the HWB so far but no state has passed a bill. One state might yet be persuaded to pass a version of the HWB but it could take decades for a significant number of states to do so.  Some extreme pro-business states will never voluntarily pass a workplace anti-bully bill, just as they have fought tooth-and-nail against other workplace protections.
  • The HWB as proposed is anemic. It contains hurdles that are not found in laws adopted in other industrialized countries, or in other U.S. civil rights laws involving the concept of a hostile work environment. These hurdles include requirements that targets prove malice and psychological injury and a $25,000 cap on damages for targets who are not demoted or fired. Many – if not most  — targets will find it difficult or impossible to obtain a meaningful remedy.  (Namie and Yamada refused to respond to questions about the troubling language of the HWB.)
  • Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (OSH Act), employers are required to provide employees with a safe workplace. Overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying can result in potentially serious mental and physical harm.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which administers the OSH act, should protect workers from bullying, just as it protects workers from physical hazards. It’s not a question of passing a new law but enforcing the OSH Act.  (Last year, OSHA adopted a workplace anti-bully policy for its own workers.)
  • Workplace bullying is widely acknowledged to be a form of workplace violence.  Although it is primarily psychological in nature, it can lead to physical violence. It exists on the same spectrum of violence as domestic violence and elder or child abuse, all of which are addressed on a federal and state level.  One of the core functions of society is to protect its vulnerable citizens from violence. The HWB provides a private right of action.  This means that its enforcement mechanism is the embattled target, who after months or decades of bullying may lack the emotional, physical, and financial resources to hire an attorney and to embark on lengthy litigation with an uncertain outcome.  What happens if a target cannot or will not act? The bully moves on to his or her next target.
  • A workplace bully is not always an individual. Employers  use “strategic harassment” to get rid of workers who demand their rights and to cheat workers out of their legal rights – such as unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, and/or fair pay and benefits.  A target suing a single employer cannot solve this problem.

 Other arguments advanced by Namie lack persuasiveness.

An enforcement action by a federal agency would be covered by the press, just like a private lawsuit.

And, yes, the  monetary penalty for state and federal OSH Act violations is insufficient but this can and should be addressed.   OSHA citations also trigger other penalties (including possible criminal sanctions) and an expensive investigation and hearing process.  Employers work diligently to avoid OSHA citations.

Namie and Yamada are concerned about the risk of burdening the court system with cases that rest on “hurt feelings” rather than true bullying. But wouldn’t this argument apply equally to any other lawsuit involving a complaint of a hostile work environment, including sexual harassment or race discrimination lawsuits? Where is the evidence to suggest that frivolous lawsuits will be a particular problem with respect to workplace bullying? And why should this be a focus of concern for anti-bully advocates? Isn’t this what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does?

Vermont’s bill notes that the Vermont office of attorney general’s civil rights unit reports that of the 1,200 to 1,300 requests for assistance it receives each year, a substantial number involve allegations of severe workplace bullying that cannot be addressed by current state or federal law or common law tort claims.

The United States lags behind many other industrialized countries in addressing workplace bullying.  That is shameful.  We owe a debt to Namie and Yamada for significantly helping to raise public awareness about the problem of workplace bullying, and for their extensive work on the issue. However, a solution is long overdue.  It is time to consider other options to protect the one in four American workers who suffer with this insidious health and safety problem.

Perception Gap Between Workplace/Youth Bullying

The trend toward criminalizing cyberbullying reflects the vast perception gap between  workplace bullying and youth bullying.

New York is considering a law to criminalize cyberbullying by teens.

In September, two New York legislators, State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, (D-Bronx/ Westchester), and Assemblyman William Scarborough, (D-Jamaica) proposed new legislation to modernize New York’s stalking laws to include cyberbullying and to make “bullycide,” the act intentionally causing a suicide via cyberbullying, covered under manslaughter statutes. The New York bill is geared toward teens.

Society’s most serious problems are addressed in criminal statutes, wherein the prosecutor levies a charge on behalf of the “people” and the crime carries the potential of incarceration.

Meanwhile, proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation is civil in nature and the leading proposed bill, the so-called Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB),  fails to provide American workers with the same level of protection provided to workers in other industrialized countries. A civil action provides a private (individual) right of redress, including reinstatement and monetary damages.

Despite the fact the proposed HWB is anemic at best, a grassroots effort has failed since 2003 to get even one state to pass the proposed bill.  Among other things, the HWB requires targets of workplace bullying to prove malice and psychological harm, which are not required for other targets of a hostile workplace environment.  It also caps damages at $25,000 if the bullied employee is not subject to an adverse employment action, such as demotion or termination.

Where is the disconnect here?

Clearly, society has yet to recognize the serious nature of the problem of workplace bullying, which is experienced by at least one in four American workers.  Overwhelming evidence shows that workplace bullying destroys lives, careers and families.  It is every bit as devastating as other types of bullying,  causing serious physical and mental health problems up to and including bullycide.

Unlike teen bullying, workplace bullying may be used strategically by employers to get rid of employees who are without fault so the employer can downsize without paying unemployment compensation, to avoid a potential workers’ compensation claim, or to thwart a collective action by workers to improve working conditions.

A review of state laws conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center in July 2010 found that at least 30 states have laws that include the term “electronic harassment,” and 5 states have laws that include the term “cyberbullying.” At least five have laws dealing explicitly with cyber-bullying, which a study found last year may be even harder on the victims than physical beatings or name-calling.

The authors of the proposed New York bill note that the National Crime Prevention Council reports that 43 % of all teens in the U.S. have been subjected to cyber-bullying. (That number jumps to 53% of LBGT youth.)

According to published reports, the proposed New York bill:

  •  Updates the crime of Third-Degree Stalking (a Class A Misdemeanor) to include cyber-bullying. This behavior is identified as a course of conduct using electronic communications that is likely to cause a fear of harm, or emotional distress to a person under the age of 21. An offense would be punishable by up to one year behind bars.
  •  Expands the charge of Second-Degree Manslaughter (a Class C Felony) to include bullycide. This is defined as when a person engages in cyber-bullying and intentionally causes the victim of such offense to commit suicide. If a cyber-bully’s victim commits suicide, the cyber-bully would face up to 15 years in prison.  (It is not clear whether this provision is age-limited – PGB)

Cyber-bullying, which is persistent harassment through electronic communication, has become more prevalent as technology, such as smart phones and social networking sites, makes communication easy, quick and readily accessible to teens and youth.

Note: Suffolk University law professor David C. Yamada, author of the HWB, and Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, which supports the HWB, declined a request to comment about the reasons that the HWB requires targets of bullying to overcome higher hurdles of proof compared to other countries – PGB.