New bill seeks to address workplace bullying, abuse

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ST. THOMAS - The Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals, Human Services and Veterans Affairs will consider a bill today that would create a law to address bullying and abuse in the workplace.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Clarence Payne III, who is the committee chairman, creates legal protections and a process similar to how sexual harassment is dealt with in the workplace.

Federal laws prohibiting bullying, sexual harassment and other workplace abuses already exist.

Payne said he developed the legislation after seeing and hearing about unhealthy work environments that are the result of stress-induced illnesses caused by workplace bullying or abuse.

"There's a whole plethora of illnesses that create such a problem many times for employees, and the employees many times have little to no recourse," Payne said.

The bill defines the abusive conduct as verbal abuse such as derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; verbal, non-verbal or physical threatening intimidating or humiliating in nature; or the sabotage or undermining of an employee's work performance.

An abusive work environment is defined as a place where an employer or one or more of their employees intentionally act to cause pain or distress to an employee that causes physical or psychological harm.

The measure also includes protections for employees to resign because of abusive conduct.

Under the proposed bill, the complaint could end up in court, where a judge could order reinstatement, removal of the offending party from the complainant's work environment, back pay, medical expenses, compensation for pain and suffering, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney's fees.

Employees have six months to file a complaint after the last offending act, according to the bill.

Any collective bargaining agreements would supersede the legislation.

Payne said the biggest criticism he has heard against the bill is that it will just end up creating a rash of lawsuits.

"It's not like you can just say anything. You have to have proof," Payne said. "A doctor's note, counselors note, saying that you have been harmed by the environment."

The measure covers the private and public sectors.

"As long as you're an employee in the Virgin Islands, you are offered your just due protection under the law," Payne said.

Payne said many states are considering similar legislation, but none have passed it into law yet.

- Contact Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email

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