Proponents of anti-workplace bullying bill regroup

State Employees Association seeks override of ‘Healthy Workplace Bill’ veto
State Employees Association President Diana Lacey

Backers of the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” aimed at addressing workplace bullying and other abusive behavior against New Hampshire state government employees, haven’t given up on the legislation in the wake of Gov. Maggie Hassan’s July 28 veto of the measure.

The bill, some two years in the making, was strongly backed by the state’s largest public employees union and opposed by several business groups, including the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, which actively lobbied against the measure even though it only addressed state employees.

The bill, said Rep. Diane Schuett, D-Pembroke, was designed to help address and solve the problems of “an abusive work environment and the health and safety of public employees” – an issue that was increasingly being raised by state employees, according to officials of the 11,000-member State Employees Association.

Schuett, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said she presented the first draft of the measure in January 2013 after she was approached by many concerned public employees. Over the last year, she said it received support from both sides of the aisle, eventually winning passage both the House and Senate on the last day of the session.

But in her veto statement, Governor Hassan, who said the bill’s language would have created legal gray areas.

“HB 591, while well-intentioned, contains a number of poorly defined and unworkable provisions that will inevitably lead to a dramatic increase in unwarranted workplace-related litigation which, in turn, will materially disrupt workplace supervision and hinder productivity within state agencies,” Hassan said in her statement. “The bill also attempts to legislate politeness, manners and the interpersonal relationships of co-workers.”

Though Schuett said she is not sure just how common harassment of state employees is, she did say that it is “definitely a problem for the people affected by it” and had hoped that the legislation would help to provide some peace of mind.

But the main reason for the dearth of statistics and evidence on workplace bullying in the state workplace, according to SEA President Diana Lacey, is because there is no policy in place and as a result such incidents do not get tracked.

Lacey said she hasn’t given up on the “overdue” legislation and is hoping for an override of the veto.

“I think it was a step forward,” said Lacey. “We are calling upon and challenging the state government to do its best … and support the bill they already passed (in both houses).”

But David Juvet, senior vice president of the BIA, said, “We don’t think it’s possible to legislate good manners and conduct in the workplace. This is a practical matter, it isn’t something the lends itself to legislation.”

Juvet also expressed concerns that similar legislation could emerge regulating behavior in the private sector, though Schuett said that her bill’s focus on the public sector was designed to prevent the legislation from being too far reaching.

She also said she has not given up on the legislation.

“If re-elected, I will probably reintroduce some form of the bill,” she said. “We will see if we can craft something more agreeable.”

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