The State Senate of Rhode Island recently approved a workplace anti-bullying bill that has been forwarded to the General Assembly’s House Labor Committee.
The “Healthy Workplace Act of 2019” would establish a state cause of action against employers and employees for workplace bullying, harassment and other abusive conduct.
If approved by the House, Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation, would be the first to enact a workplace anti-bullying bill. Such bills have been introduced in a couple of dozen state legislatures since 2002 but none has won final approval.
This blog has argued for a federal solution, namely extending some of the anti-harassment protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to all workers. Even if Rhode Island passes the bill, so-called pro-business states like Texas and Indiana are unlikely to ever do so. Meanwhile, the United States remains one of the only industrialized countries in the world that fails to grant all workers protection from health-harming workplace bullying and harassment.
Rhode Island’s bill, introduced by Sen. Frank A. Ciccone, D-Providence, essentially grants all workers some of the anti-harassment protections that are now limited to members of protected classes, including race, sex, age, or religion.
The proposed legislation would allow targets of harassment to sue in state court for psychological, physical or economical harm stemming from deliberate exposure to abusive work environments.
If a party is found liable, a judge can order the bully removed 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 fees.
If the worker is not fired, s/he would be ineligible for emotional distress and punitive damages.
However, the proposed bill includes a provision that is not contained in other discrimination laws and which would severely limit recoveries. If the target of bullying suffered no adverse employment action (i.e. dismissal, demotion), the court can order emotional distress damages and punitive damages can only if the “actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.”
The bill provides that it is an “affirmative defense” for an employer that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any actionable behavior and the complainant employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of appropriate preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer
Here are other specifics from the proposed legislation:
- Abusive conduct” includes acts and/or omissions that a reasonable person would find abusive based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct.
- Abusive conduct may include, but is not limited to: (i) Repeated verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, epithets; (ii) Verbal, or nonverbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or 13humiliating nature; or(iii) The sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance, etc.
- It is an aggravating factor if the conduct exploits an employee’s known psychological or physical illness or disability.
- A single act normally will not constitute abusive conduct, but an especially severe and egregious act may meet this standard.
- An “abusive work environment” exists when an employer or employee(s), acting with intent to cause pain and distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical and/or, psychological harm.
- An employer shall be vicariously liable for any unlawful employment practice committed by their employee.
The proposed bill was approved by a roll call vote of 32 to 6 on April 10, 2019.