CONCORD – Governor Maggie Hassan released the following message after vetoing HB 591 today:
“By the authority vested in me, pursuant to part II, Article 44 of the New Hampshire Constitution, on July 28th, 2014, I vetoed House Bill 591, relative to an abusive work environment and the health and safety of public employees.
“In New Hampshire, our hard-working and skilled state employees consistently execute the responsibilities of state government with great competence and ability. They deserve our admiration and respect for their public service and should always be afforded, along with their private sector counterparts, the opportunity to work in a respectful and dignified environment.
“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. The bill also attempts to legislate politeness, manners and the interpersonal relationships of co-workers. Ultimately, it would head us in a direction toward extending these onerous and unnecessary directives to our private sector business community, making our state an undesirable destination for expansion and economic development.
“The Attorney General, Commissioners and my office worked diligently with legislators and the State Employees Association and developed a reasonable compromise that would have served our employees well without greatly undermining the continuity and effectiveness of state government.
“However, the Senate ultimately rejected the compromise and instead elected to send an extremely flawed bill to my desk.
“Among its most onerous provisions, this legislation defines “abusive conduct” in a broad and unworkable manner based on an individual employee’s subjective perception, not on an unbiased objective standard. While I know it was not the intent of its sponsors, this bill, as written, may make the most routine workplace interactions – and the human give-and-take they entail – potential causes of action. Under this bill:
- An individual may claim workplace abuse if an employee believes he or she has an “unreasonable” workload, even if it is a workload similar to their co-workers.
- An individual may claim workplace abuse if his or her supervisor or co-worker uses language that “criticizes” the employee in public – even if the criticism is constructive, appropriate and done within the confines of the workplace.
- An individual may claim workplace abuse if he or she feels his or her co-workers are not answering emails in a timely manner, and therefore “ignoring” a request for information or assistance. Given the workloads of employees, they are likely to have very different definitions of what amounts to a reasonable amount of time to respond to a non-urgent request.
- An individual may claim workplace abuse if a supervisor gives what the employee feels is “unreasonable criticism” outside of the typical evaluation process. Under the proposed legislation if an employee, for example, fills out the same form wrong every day, or returns late from a break every day, a supervisor who offers corrective guidance outside an annual review could be accused of bullying.
- An individual may claim workplace abuse if a co-worker or a supervisor shows “constant and harsh displays of disrespect,” even though the legislation offers no guidance of what it means by “constant” or “harsh” or “disrespect.” For example, under this legislation, an employee would be able to claim abuse if a co-worker regularly failed to say hello in the morning.
“While many specious complaints would ultimately be dismissed by the courts, the state would still incur the time and expense of litigation. In addition, the specter of claims would create a culture of fear where supervisors are unable to manage, and a handful of employees could push their workloads onto their co-workers by filing bullying complaints.
“This bill also creates an entirely new – and expensive – system for addressing public employee complaints, without any funding to establish it. Under existing state rules, personnel complaints are expected to be made first to a supervisor and then through the agency head.
“In circumstances where employees are either uncomfortable making a complaint to their immediate supervisor or the complaint is about their immediate supervisor, existing rules also provide other avenues for redress for employees. In such cases, employees are also able to bring their complaints to other supervisors, their agency head, their human resources officers or the Division of Personnel.
“This bill effectively nullifies those standard lines of mediating workplace disputes. In doing so, the legislation effectively ignores the fact that many instances of alleged “abusive conduct” under this legislation may not involve supervisors but instead involve co-workers. The bill would allow employees with complaints against a co-worker to circumvent the employee’s supervisor, who is often the very person best suited to address the concern.
“Under the current system, the Division of Personnel, which has limited resources, conducts investigations into sexual harassment, and some other serious cases of workplace misconduct. The Department of Labor has no experience, no expertise and no personnel for mediating such inter-personnel disputes. This legislation does not provide the Department with any funding or staff to take on this major new role. And, even if it did, HB 591 is silent on what the remedies might be, and what authority the department has to enforce a remedy.
“In proposing to enact this new set of policies, HB 591 ignores current remedies in place provided through existing personnel rules, existing administrative practices and the existing right to a private cause of action for those instances that are the most extreme in nature.
“I have additionally heard numerous concerns from the business community, including the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, which opposed the bill and are concerned about the impact of such provisions if extended to private sector employers statewide. In addition to the fact that this legislation will hurt state government’s ability to effectively and efficiently manage its workforce, the possibility of its application to the private sector would be counter-productive to the efforts of our innovative businesses to grow and create good jobs.
“I believe a respectful workplace is important to ensure productivity and fairness to all of our state employees. In response to the concerns I heard from employees soon after I took office, I tasked the Division of Personnel with developing a new “Respect in the Workplace” training initiative aimed at promoting a respectful and civil work environment for the benefit of all employees. Administered through the Division of Personnel in conjunction with the Employee Assistance Program, the “Respect in the Workplace” initiative provides training for both employees and supervisors to ensure that we are providing a high-quality work environment.
“Every state employee should work in a safe and respectful environment and I remain willing to work with our employees to move forward to build on and improve on these efforts.
“This legislation, however, does not accomplish that goal. It would create an expensive and likely litigious system; would incite conflicts between co-workers; and would make it difficult for supervisors to reasonably and fairly manage employees, making state government less efficient and effective. This legislation is not funded, nor are the necessary positions authorized, to perform such significant new tasks. In addition, there are reasonable – and I believe better – approaches to addressing this issue, which I remain open to working with employees to accomplish. Therefore I have vetoed HB 591.”
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