State Anti-Bully Law Would Let Workers Sue for Nastiness
By R.M. Schneiderman
Amid the furor over Gov. Paterson’s furlough plan this week, few seemed to notice when the state Senate passed a bipartisan measure on Wednesday that would give workers who have been physically, psychologically or economically abused by their employers the ability to sue in civil court.
But opponents of the law, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are quickly lining up to say the measure’s passage in the state Assembly would result in lots of costly litigation.
One major issue: how to define what is and what isn’t abuse.
“Just because you’re fired doesn’t mean you were abused,” said Stephen Powers, the counsel to State Sen. Thomas Morahan, the bill’s sponsor.
Before filing a suit, a plaintiff would have to notify his or her employer of a pattern of abuse and must give the employer time to address the issue. Workers would also have to prove an employer acted maliciously.
Yet critics say the process of determining abuse can be complicated, and passage could lead to a spike in litigation, especially in New York City.
The bill states that verbal abuse includes derogatory remarks. “Who hasn’t worked in a workplace where there aren’t derogatory remarks?” said Jim Copland, the director of the Center for Legal Policy at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. “Big corporate law firms, trading floors, these are exceptionally abusive work environments,” he said. “People are yelling, people are cursing, this is what happens.”
In a statement on Friday, the Bloomberg administration expressed opposition to the measure.
Supporters, including labor unions, say that workers currently have little recourse when they’ve been bullied at work. They cite a study by Zogby International and the Workplace Bullying Institute, a Washington State-based nonprofit, that found 37% of all Americans say they have experienced bullying on the job. Of that group, 45% of respondents reported stress-related health problems such as panic attacks and depression.
As it stands, workers in New York can sue their employers and co-workers for discrimination based on race, sex, age, disability, religion and sexual orientation.
Similar legislation is pending in 16 other states. If passed here, it would mark the first time a state established a standard, across-the-board civil mechanism for abuse and harassment claims.
“This is a tax on employment that instead of going to the government, it goes to lawyers,” said the Manhattan Institute’s Copland.
But it’s precisely that cost that will curb abusive workplace practices, countered David Yamada, the bill’s author and a professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston.
“The main impact of that bill will be preventive,” he said.
First introduced in 2008, the bill is currently in the labor committee of the state Assembly. Susan John, the committee’s head, says the bill would create a disincentive for companies to relocate to New York and may even lead some to leave the state.
“No other state in the country has a law like this,” she said.
Proponents like Yamada say it’s unlikely one provision would cause businesses to move. If the bill passes, he said, other states would likely follow suit.
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