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..

 

Workplace Bullying: The Big Picture

I am pleased to be quoted in a  Businessweek  feature on the problem of workplace bullies but I also find it frustrating that  the American media consistently fails to see the big picture about this serious national problem.

Workplace bullying is not just about misguided individuals who bully co-workers and subordinates. More importantly, it is about American employers.

American employers permit bullying in the workplace because there is no law or regulation that requires them to stop it – despite the fact that it is widely recognized as a form of workplace violence. Other industrialized countries recognize workplace bullying as an important public health and safety problem. And decades of research show that workplace bullying causes targets to suffer potentially severe emotional and physical harm.

Only employers can stop workplace bullying. Employees who are targeted for bullying generally are completely helpless to do anything about it, especially if the bully is a superior.

Why don’t employers stop it?

Because in America, workplace bullying is seen as a prerogative of the employer. In fact, some unscrupulous employers use bullying strategically to accomplish a goal – such as to avoid unions, downsize without paying unemployment compensation, or to evade a potential worker’s compensation claim. In my own practice of law, I saw many cases where employees were bullied and driven out of the workplace by an employer after they complained about wage theft (which, by the way, is epidemic in the United States). 

Why don’t workers do anything about it?

The vast majority of American workers are completely priced out of the American legal system and,  besides, federal judges (who have lifetime tenure barring bad behavior) are appallingly ignorant and unsympathetic to claims of  employment discrimination and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

So one in three or four American workers are bullied by employers, either directly or because the employer tolerates or fails to stop an abusive workplace environment.  

This all  stands in sharp contrast to other industrialized countries – including the European Union – where authorities recognize workplace bullying as a major problem and have placed the burden of eliminating workplace bullying squarely on employers.

Activitists in the United States have been spinning their wheels for more than a decade in an attempt to get a state-by-state solution to the problem of workplace bullying but the only real answer lies with the federal government.  States should act – and I hope they will act – but this is not the solution.  Today, many states will do virtually anything to attract new business; it is wishful thinking that they will voluntarily pass a law protecting targets of workplace bullying  if they can gain any competitive edge by not doing so. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has acknowledged the problem by enacting workplace bullying protections for its own employees but it has failed to take any steps to protect the health and safety of millions of American workers across the nation.

This blog is a member of the coalition Protect-US-Workers that has launched a petition drive asking U.S. President Barack H. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis to formulate a national response to the problem of workplace bullying.

Talk to your legislators. Sign the petition.

Lost in Discussion: Employers that Bully

 They Use Strategic Harassment and Exploitation

Most people who think of workplace bullies invoke the image of the combative boss played by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross or the passive-hostile magazine editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

But some workplace bullies are not individuals but the employer itself – a fact that often gets lost in the discussion of workplace bullying. Some employers use strategic harassment tactics on workers to avoid legal obligations, such as the payment of fair wages, workers compensation or unemployment insurance.

Employers that bully promulgate policies that take advantage of their workers. For example, they steal wages from their employees by intentionally misclassifying them as exempt and thus ineligible for overtime.

The Progressive States Network estimates that low-wage workers lose $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year.  That amounts to approximately 15% of their annual income

Some employers use strategic harassment to get rid of good employees. This occurs when an employer targets one or more workers for harassment to achieve an organizational goal.  Some employers, for example, make life miserable for workers when they want to downsize without paying unemployment insurance. Or they harass a “troublemaker” who has asserted a legal right to fair compensation or overtime, essentially forcing him or her to quit.

Other employers knowingly tolerate bullies in their employ for crass economic reasons – athough that strategy can backfire.

Ani Chopourian filed at least 18 complaints with the Human Resources Dept. of Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, CA, during the two years she worked there as a physician assistant. She was fired after the last complaint. A federal court jury in March awarded Chopourian $168 million in damages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

Many of Chopourian’s complaints involved a bullying surgeon who she said once stabbed her with a needle. Another surgeon, she said, would greet her each morning with “I’m horny” and slap her bottom. Another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, such as asking her if she had joined Al Qaeda.

Ms. Chopourian speculated that hospital administrators put up with misbehavior in the cardiac unit and tolerated the surgeons’ outsize egos because cardiac surgery tends to bring in the most money for any hospital facility.

Surveys show that workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States, where at least one in four American workers reports being bullied in the workplace.  Workplace bullying can cause a target to experience potentially severe psychological and physical illness, including clinical depression, post traumatic stress syndrome and stress-related chronic disease.

Much of the focus on the problem in the United States has involved a state-by-state campaign to pass a civil law that would allow targets of workplace bullying to seek damages from individual employers. However, such a law would do nothing to combat the systemic problem of employer bullying and abuse in the United States.

This blog is part of a loose-knit coalition of workplace anti-bully advocates that is calling upon the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the Obama administration to promulgate a comprehensive national solution to the problem of workplace bullying and abuse that would  address the problem of bullying employers.  If you agree, sign our petition at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/protect-us-workers/?cid=FB_TAF.

Workplace Bullying: America Lags Behind

It is a disgrace that America is one of the only industrialized countries in the world that tolerates workplace bullying.

Please sign a petition asking the Obama administration to formulate a national strategy to halt workplace bullying. The petition, created by a coalition of workplace anti-bully advocates (including this blog), can be found at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/protect-us-workers/.

Among other countries, America lags behind the 32 members and participating states of the European Union that voted in 2007 to require all employers to address and prevent workplace bullying.  Sweden acted in 1993!

The World Health Organization calls workplace bullying a major public health problem.  There is overwhelming research showing that targets of workplace bullying may suffer a variety of long-and short-term mental and physical health problems. A high level of stress in the workplace is linked to chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease.

If you happen to be the one-in-four American workers who are afflicted with bullying, you will quickly find that no federal or state law exists to protect you.  Sure, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 requires employers to provide all workers with a safe workplace but the OSH Act is not enforced with respect to workplace bulling. Even if you can shoehorn your complaint into an existing law, it will be an expensive, long, uphill battle.  You may also find that the American judiciary is not knowledgeable or sympathetic to the plight of workers.

Surveys show that most targets of bullying are either forced to quit or resign.

In a little more than two weeks, about 7,000 people have signed the petition. Surely this is evidence of the overwhelming nature of this problem, especially in our current dire economy, with an aging workforce that cannot afford to quit or retire. When you sign the petition, an email is dispatched to both the White House and to the Labor Secretary.

Here are some recent comments from the petition:

  •  Workplace bullying has to end! My diabetic dad is too afraid to speak out against his coworker and boss who are creating a severe hostile work environment for fear of losing his job. This epidemic has to stop.
  • Workers who bully are unprofessional and immature and psychologically disturbed, and contribute to health problems in their targets and increased absenteeism and med costs. Remove the bullies, the work environment should be on a professional par with other industrialized countries, and not a playpen or a refuge for sociopaths.
  •  I too was bullied by a supervisor, who was a bully while in school. He would snark at me, make fun of my work if my way of performing the task was different than how he envisioned (my way was more time-efficient even), roll his eyes at my comments, and such. Once when he was asking me for some personal info I finally told him, ‘why would I give a bully additional info to use against me?’ I had lots of hair loss, high blood pressure, unsettling dreams leading to unsettled sleep patterns, and felt tired all the time. I did finally make it to retirement, whew, and it took 6-10 months for my body to realign from all the stress.
  •  I had loved my job and the people I worked for and with; but after seeing my boss bully and harass employees until they quit or are fired; it suddenly became my turn. i could not understand why a guy that i gave everything to 12- 15 hours a day, would harass me and call me names to the point where I would be hospitalized several times for severe anxiety disorder, and have to live with it and medication. all caused by one man that felt that with power and riches he can ruin anyone’s life he chooses.
  •  Bullies aren’t found only in the schools. Some graduate to become workplace bullies. Just because they are chronologically adult doesn’t guarantee they will act responsibly. Please act to protect working Americans.