U.S. Secretary of Labor Sleeping on the Job?

With America’s workplace anti-bully movement seemingly stuck in the trenches, perhaps it is time to follow the example of  America’s neighbor to the North.

The Canadian province of Quebec amended its Labour Standards Act in 2002 to ban non-discriminatory workplace harassment and bullying. The law, which went into effect on June 1, 2004, also imposes a duty on employers to prevent and stop bullying.

According to one observer, the law was the result of  a sustained campaign by Quebec unions, as well as by a non-profit advocacy and resource group for non-unionized workers, “Au bas l’echelle” (in English, “Rank and File”).

This effort resulted in the establishment  in 1999 by then Minister of Labor, Diane Lemieux, of an Interdepartmental Committee on Psychological Harassment at Work.  The committee in 2001 recommended the government take legislative steps to prohibit psychological harassment.

It is time for unions and workplace anti-bully advocates to call upon the U.S. Secretary of Labor  to empanel a commission to study the problem of workplace bulling in the United States and recommend new legislation to Congress.

There is overwhelming research that the problem of workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States, affecting at least one in four workers, and that workplace bullying destroys lives and costs American employers billions every year.

Efforts began in the United States almost a decade ago to pass a so-called Healthy Workplace Bill on a state-by-state basis.  Thus far, no state has adopted the bill, which is much weaker than Quebec’s legislation.

Meanwhile, the worsening economy has left more and more workers vulnerable to bullying. Not only are there fewer jobs, but the nature of the workforce is changing. More workers today are categorized as “independent contractors” who receive no benefits and low pay. These include  home-workers, tele-workers, piece-workers.

Even if one state does step up and adopt a workplace anti-bully bill, it will take decades, if ever, before all of the states do.

*** See Debra L. Parkes, “Targeting Workplace Harassment in Quebec: On Exporting a New Legislative Agenda” (2004) 8 Empl. Rts. & Employ. Pol’y J. 423.

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.

Other Approaches to Workplace Bullying?

So far, efforts to combat bullying in the American workplace largely have centered on a campaign spurred by the Workplace Bully Institute to pass anti-bullying legislation on a state-by-state basis.  To date, the effort has yet to yield a single success (defined as a state that has adopted such legislation).

What would happen if workplace anti-bully advocates took a different approach?

One idea might be federal legislation to amend Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to  permit any worker to sue if subjected to a hostile workplace environment.

Another idea is to approach the problem as an important public  health issue  –  which it is – and adopt health and safety regulations to protect employees on that basis. Finally, one might think local – push cities and towns to adopt legislation to protect employees from workplace abuse.

Advocates for anti-obesity measures took the local approach, with some initial success.  However, industry groups are now finding a way to halt local initiatives, using stealth tactics to erect statewide road blocks.

Public health advocates persuaded some progressive cities and counties around the nation to pass anti-obesity measures, such as requiring restaurants to list fat and calorie content on their menus or to prepare food without unhealthy trans-fats.  The New York Times reported June 30, 2011 that  industry groups are acting pro-actively to quash these anti-obesity efforts. and they are using stealth tactics.

The Times notes that Ohio’s 5,000-page state budget contained sweeping limitations on local government control over restaurants.  Florida  adopted similar limits, tucked into a bill that largely concerned amendments to state regulations on vacation rentals. Other states with limits include Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Utah. Earlier this year, Arizona prohibited local governments from forbidding the marketing of fast food using “consumer incentives” like toys.

Not surprisingly, state restaurant groups are leading the charge for the preemptive state legislation.   State legislators who sponsored preemptive legislation in Florida and Alabama say they were contacted by their state’s restaurant associations, which expressed concern that California’s latest food rules would be adopted by their own local governments.

The Los Angeles City Council has banned fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, where rates of poverty and obesity are high. In April, the Santa Clara County supervisors adopted a policy that forbids fast food restaurants from selling meals with toys, like those connected with movie promotions.

The Ohio law gives the state’s director of agriculture “sole and exclusive” authority to regulate the use of consumer incentives in food marketing and prohibits localities from requiring menu labeling and using incentives and laws to address “food-based health disparities.”  The statute may nullify a law passed by the Cleveland council in April that banned restaurants and food makers from using “industrially produced” trans fats in products.

One of the fundamental concepts of the U.S. Constitution involves the importance of state’s rights – the idea  is that real change and progress comes from experimentation among the states and not through a federal bureaucracy. It doesn’t take a PhD. to see that this concept also is relevant to states, which tend to  adopt progressive statewide legislation in response to local initiatives.   I’d rather be guided by the framers of our U.S. Constitution than self-interested industry groups. Wouldn’t you?

The state-by-state campaign to adopt workplace anti-bully legislation began in 2003 in California and has encountered steady opposition from business groups, who apparently are largely ignorant about the enormous toll bullying exacts on the employer’s bottom line.   This, despite the fact that the Workplace Bullying Institute is pushing a proposed Healthy Workplace Bill that is considerably weaker than legislation adopted in other industrialized countries around the world. American workers deserve strong protection from bullying in the workplace, which causes health problems and destroys lives and families.

* The new state laws limiting public health measures will have no effect on a federal law that requires menu labeling by chains with 20 or more restaurants by 2013. But more than half of the nation’s restaurants will not be required to meet the federal rules for listing calories and fat content.

Workplace Anti-Bullying Laws Inevitable …

Here are excerpts from a Jan. 21, 2011 article in The New York Law Journal by two attorneys at a major law firm that represents management and employers, warning that it is just a question of time before a state passes a law providing a right of civil redress to workers who are victims of workplace bullying. Note: this article presents a somewhat alarmist view of what the authors concede is the inevitable passage of legislation to combat workplace abuse. The authors trivialize the current problem, focusing on co-worker spats and hypersensitive employees while ignoring the devastating impact of workplace bullying on targets, their families and the employers.  The authors’ interpretation of case law is unduly negative and slanted.  And the authors fail to present an accurate picture of the current costs of  workplace abuse  on employers and society– PGB

Office Bully Takes One on the Nose: Developing Law on Workplace Abuse

by Jason Habinsky and Christine M. Fitzgerald

For years the law has been stacked against an employee claiming that he or she was abused or bullied by a co-worker. Generally, the law offers no protection to such a victim as long as the alleged bully can show that his or her actions were not motivated by the victim’s status as a member of a protected class. Currently, there are no federal, state or local laws providing a cause of action for an individual subject to a non-discriminatory abusive work environment. However, with bullying becoming front-page news across the nation, it is just a matter of time before the law adapts. Since 2003, 17 states have considered legislation designed to protect employees from workplace bullying. Indeed, this year New York came very close to a floor vote on a bill that would provide a cause of action to an employee subjected to an abusive work environment.

Proponents of anti-bullying legislation contend that it is necessary given the prevalence of abusive conduct in the workplace. The proposed New York legislation noted that “between sixteen and twenty-one percent of employees directly experience health endangering workplace bullying, abuse and harassment” and that “[s]uch behavior is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment.”

Currently, employers have little to worry about with respect to facing substantial liability as a result of workplace bullying. The existing legal framework provides very limited recourse to an employee who is bullied at work. While some types of harassment are outlawed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII’s reach is narrow. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on an individual’s race, sex, color, religion, or national origin.

Likewise, the extreme behavior that gives rise to the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress does not encompass most workplace bullying.

Employees also have been unsuccessful in trying to fit their workplace bullying claims into a cause of action for constructive discharge.

Therefore, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a new era of legislation and legal precedent targeted at preventing and punishing workplace bullying. Indeed, it seems inevitable that some form of the HWB (Healthy Workplace Bill) will become law, whether in New York or elsewhere, and that once the first state adopts an anti-bullying statute others will shortly follow.