OSHA Suit Linked to Bullying

osha-logoThe U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has initiated what appears to be one of its first – if not its first – lawsuit involving  workplace bullying.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) filed the lawsuit earlier this month against a Fort Lauderdale business owner who fired a worker after the worker complained to OSHA that the worker was subjected to discrimination because he complained about hostile workplace conditions at the company.

According to an OSHA press release, Duane Thomas Marine Construction LLC and its owner, Duane Thomas, are charged with terminating the worker in violation of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).  Section 11 (c)  prohibits discriminating against any employee because the employee has filed a complaint related to the OSH Act or has exercised a right  afforded by the Act.  The employee was not identified by OSHA.

The case  involves what appears to be essentially a campaign of workplace bullying.

The OSHA press release states the employee complained that Thomas on numerous occasions between Dec. 9, 2009 and Feb. 25, 2011 “committed workplace violence and created hostile working conditions. He allegedly behaved abusively, made inappropriate sexual comments and advances, yelled, screamed and made physically threatening gestures, in addition to withholding the employee’s paycheck.”   The employee worked directly for Thomas at the company’s custom marine dock installation services site on Marco Island.

The case is significant because the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act requires employers to provide safe and healthful workplaces for their employees.  However, OSHA has not shown any leadership with respect to workplace bullying, even  though overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying causes potentially serious short and long-term health consequences.  OSHA typically enforces safety standards that relate to traditional industrial hazards, such as high noise levels, chemical exposure, electrical or fall hazards, etc.

Shortly after Thomas was notified of the OSHA complaint, OSHA states that Thomas  had the company’s computer passwords changed to deny the employee remote access to files and then terminated the employee.

The lawsuit seeks back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay in lieu of reinstatement. Additionally, it seeks to have the employee’s personnel records expunged with respect to the matters at issue in the case and to bar the employer from committing  future violations of the OSH Act.

Teresa Harrison, OSHA’s acting regional administrator in Atlanta, said, “Employees have the right to raise workplace violence concerns without fear of retaliation.”

The lawsuit, Solis v. Duane Thomas Marine Construction LLC and Duane Thomas, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division.

Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor requesting  an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.   The  program enforces the whistleblower provisions of more than 20 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various workplace safety, airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health insurance reform, motor vehicle safety, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, and securities laws. Rights afforded by these whistleblower acts include, but are not limited to, worker participation in safety and health activities, reporting a work related injury, illness or fatality, or reporting a violation of the statutes.

Link Between Bullying & Discrimination

One of the most common types of lawsuits facing American employers is a discrimination lawsuit.

Workplace bullying and discrimination are closely intertwined and one might even say that bullying precipitates many discrimination lawsuits

Discrimination involves unfair treatment of an individual or group of individuals because of a distinguishing characteristic that is protected under state or federal law, such as sex, race, national origin, disability, religion, etc.   But it also frequently also involves workplace bullying, which is the systematic and repeated harassment of an employee over a period of time..  One employee  – often  a supervisor – attempts to exercise improper power and control over another, often a subordinate.

Even people who despise women or minorities probably would tolerate them if they silently accept whatever abuse the bully chooses to inflict upon them, never outshine or demonstrate competence that threatens the bully and act with complete subservience at all times. Of course, that doesn’t always happens. Targets of discrimination often complain and demand to be treated with fairness. That’s when the workplace bullying begins in earnest. A bully cannot tolerate a target who refuses to aknowledge the bully’s “right” to exercise complete power and control over the target.

Employers never win when they are sued by workers. Among other things, employers have to spend money to defend themselves. It is estimated that it costs an employer $100,000 to defend even the weakest and least meritorious lawsuit, nevermind a strong case that may ultimately result in a settlement or a judgment for the plaintiff.

Last March, a physician’s assistant at a Sacramento hospital won a jury award of $168 million after alleging she was harassed by cardiac surgeons at the hospital.  She filed 18 complaints with the Human Resources Department, which not only ignored her complaints but actually fired her! She speculates the hospital’s failure to address her complaints was because the cardiac surgeons are the highest revenue producers in the hospital. The jury award included $128 million in punitive damages.

Many industrialized countries have adopted health and safety laws and other kinds of legislation to protect workers from bullying and harassment, and to require employers to provide all employees with a workplace free from bullying and psychological harassment.  But America has resisted efforts to protect workers here from bullying for more than a decade. Why?

Some unscrupulous employers use bullying  strategically to get rid of good employees and to avoid legal obligations, such as paying worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits.  Some unscrupulous employers use bullying to thwart unions and  drive out workers who demand their rights under the law. In some cases, the worker actually has a technical right  under some law to sue the employer but the reality is that few workers today can afford the legal process. And it’s biased in favor of employers anyway.

Finally, it is not inconceivable that there’s a lot of ignorance out there  about how much workplace bullying costs American employers – literally billions of dollars a year- in unnecessary turnover, lost work and needless litigation.

The unscrupulous employers are probably a small minority of American employers. Most employers want to follow the law and be good citizens. 

There is an easy and relatively inexpensive way for good employers to mimize the risk of a  potentially catastrophic discrmination lawsuit . They should adopt and rigorously enforce a general anti-harassment anti-bullying policy that makes it clear that bullying will not be tolerated by anyone in the organization, including cardiac surgeons and the Chief Executive Officer.  By the way, that’s also the right thing to do. Doesn’t every employee deserve to be treated with dignity and respect?

Those who are interested in reading more about this topic should read my new book, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

Ron Paul to sexual harrassment victims — Go home?

Unlike Herman Cain, his former competitor in the GOP presidential race,  Ron Paul is not facing accusations of sexual harassment.

However, Paul, a member of the U.S. Congress from Texas, may be accused of having stunningly little understanding of the problem.

Earlier this month, Paul told Fox News he is standing by statements he made in a 1987 book, Freedom Under Siege, that workers who are targets of sexual harassment must bear some responsibility for the abuse and do not require any special legal protection.

“Why don’t they quit once the so-called harassment starts?” wrote Paul. “Obviously the morals of the harasser cannot be defended, but how come the harassee escapes some responsibility for the problem about sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Earlier this month, host Chris Wallace of  Fox News Sunday asked Paul whether he still agreed with those 1987 statements.  Paul said he does, adding that neither verbal and physical harassment  warrants a federal law.

Regarding the issue of verbal harassment, Paul said:  “If it’s just because somebody told a joke to somebody who was offended, they don’t have a right to go to the federal government and have a policeman come in and put penalties on those individuals. They have to say maybe this is not a very good environment. They have the right to work there or not work there.”

Paul said workers who are victims of physical sexual harassment also do not require protection from a federal law because there already are laws prohibiting assault and rape.

“Because people are insulted by rude behavior, I don’t think we should make a federal case about it. I don’t think we need federal laws to deal with that. People should deal with that at home,” he said.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment, which is a form of sex discrimination. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has said that Title VII doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  Harassment becomes illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

In other words,  to be actionable, victims of sexual harassment must feel their very freedom to work  is … under siege.

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.