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.

Crime & Sexual Harassment

_41030565_mugging_203_bbcWhy isn’t sexual harassment a crime in the United States?

 It is in France.

 France’s General Assembly enacted a new sexual harassment law on July 31, 2012 that includes criminal penalties of up to three years in prison and a fine of approximately $56,000 for serious cases.

 The new French law defines harassment as imposing on someone, in a repeated way, words or actions that have a sexual nature and either undermine the person’s dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.

 In the United States, sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The remedy is civil, which means it is up to the victim to sue and the damages are monetary and/or  injunctive relief.  In criminal cases, a prosecutor sues on behalf of the state and may seek  fines and imprisonment.

It can be very difficult to win a sexual harassment case in the United States. The  U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  This leaves a lot of room for interpretation by judges, especially with respect to whether sexually harassing conduct  is frequent enough  and severe enough to be actionable.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that WirelessComm, a Northern California distributor for the Metro PCS cell phone service provider, had agreed to pay $97,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the agency.

 According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the store manager of WirelessComm in Watsonville, CA,    subjected then-19-year-old Deisy Mora to abuse throughout her seven months of employment at the store

He frequently commented about her physical  appearance, texted her photos of himself and the words “Te quiero” (‘I love  you’ in Spanish), and referred to women in general with slurs and epithets.

In addition, the EEOC said, the store owner  contributed  to the harassmen by inviting Ms. Mora to travel with him, asking her and others if  they were pregnant and, on one occasion, asking her to text photos of herself  and other female staff members.

The EEOC says Ms. Mora’s complaints were not addressed and she eventually quit her job  when she could no longer endure the harassment.

 What happened to the store manager and the store owner?

Under the consent decree, WirelessComm agreed to train the store owner and staff regarding anti-discrimination laws.  But there is no indication the WirelssComm store owner and store manager didn’t understand anti-discrimination laws in the first place, only that they didn’t place any importance on these laws and didn’t follow them.

The EEOC said  WirelessComm also  agreed to hire an equal employment opportunity consultant and a human resources consultant to revise its EEO policies; monitor the workplace; respond to any allegations of harassment arising during the three-year  pendency of the decree; and report harassment complaints to the EEOC.

In other words, WirelessComm will start following the law.

In  the final analysis, it seems like a small price  to pay for a campaign of a harassment waged by two adult men in positions of authority against a  vulnerable teenager.  If the store owner and store manager had mugged Ms. Dora while she was walking down a street, they’d probably spend at least some time in jail.  Here  they stole  her peace of mind and robbed her of  financial security in a time of high un employment.

 The United States recognizes two types of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo and (2) hostile environment.

 Quid pro quo is Latin for “this for that.” This type of harassment occurs when a  boss or supervisor asks for a sexual favor in return for a job benefit.

 Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it creates a sexually intimidating or abusive work environment. Hostile environment sexual harassment must be:

  • based on sex (sexual conduct, sexual comments, or nonsexual conduct that is based on your gender);
  • unwelcome (you must show that you do not enjoy the harasser’s attention and that you are not encouraging it); and either
  • severe (one or more serious incidents that affect your job) or pervasive (a pattern or series of smaller incidents that are so widespread that you have trouble doing your job as a result).