Dear David: Bully Bosses

Question:

The managers and directors at my office threaten to fire employees for things that are personal and non-work-related. I’ve been called stupid and had something thrown at me by my boss. The president of the company travels 99% of the time, so these higher-ups do not have to answer to anyone. I’ve looked up workplace bullying to find that it does not fall under Title VII, nor is it acknowledged at all. How can employees defend themselves against these threats?  Why is bullying not allowed in schools but is allowed in the workplace? What gives managers and directors the right to viciously attack employees? Can you help? Thanks so much.

— Standing Up, Connecticut

 

Answer:

Hey, before you read my answer to this week’s question, I want to highlight the release of our new two-tiered website, FixMyJob.com and OrganizeWith.US. I’ve previewed the site in this column before, but now we’re officially up and running. Check it out and let me know what you think. And send the link to that friend or neighbor who you know is dealing with a problem right now, because he or she doesn’t have to go it alone.

It’s astonishing to me whenever I see adults who haven’t outgrown bullying. For some people, the whole reason to have a position of power is that you can mistreat people under you. When it’s the person who sets your schedule, your assignments or your pay, it’s especially intimidating.

No one deserves this treatment. Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far or long to find other examples of this far-too-common problem. Judging from the number of submissions on this topic as well as what I’ve found just talking to workers directly, it feels like workplace bullying is practically an epidemic. According to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute:

35% of the U.S. workforce (an estimated 53.5 million Americans) report being bullied at work; an additional 15% witness it. Half of all Americans have directly experienced it. Simultaneously, 50% report neither experiencing nor witnessing bullying. Hence, a “silent epidemic.”

You’re correct that Title VII—the federal anti-discrimination law—does not outlaw bullying or harassment in general, only harassment that is based on characteristics like the employee’s race, gender or religion, among others.  However, that does not mean it is legal for employers to treat employees this way.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizes that workers have a right to a workplace free of violence, and that workplace violence includes both physical and verbal abuse. In some states there’s a growing push to stop this kind of abusethrough legislation.

The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone. From the sound of it, you’re far from the only person getting this mistreatment, so it’s worth thinking about talking with other employees about what they’re experiencing. And it’s not a bad idea to keep detailed notes of what’s happening and who witnessed it. The biggest advantage a bully can have is the belief that his or her victim will keep quiet.

Don’t forget, most employees in the private sector have the right under the National Labor Relations Act to join together in demanding a stop to this abuse. And you can start by visiting FixMyJob.com.

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Investigation Launched into Death of Georgia Worker at Kia Supplier

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched an investigation into working conditions at Sewon America’s LaGrange, Ga., facility after an employee, Teresa Weaver Pickard, died after allegedly being forced to work in extreme heat. Sewon, a company that provides auto parts to Kia, denies Pickard’s death was work-related, but an anonymous source at the plant has disputed Sewon’s account of the tragedy.

Michael D’Aquino, an OSHA public affairs officer for the agency’s Atlanta-West office, confirmed the investigation, the LaGrange Citizen reports:

“We’ll be visiting the [Sewon plant] trying to learn what happened and in what order,” D’Aquino said. “We’ll be looking at physical evidence as well as talking to eyewitnesses and learning as much as possible about the incident.” OSHA also will look at previous reports of misconduct by Sewon, potentially including the 2010 death of a worker who fell 50 feet in a construction accident.

While the Troup County coroner’s office has not released details of its investigation, which has been sent to the state crime lab in Atlanta, the LaGrange Citizen says an anonymous employee reported several details of the incident and work conditions at the factory that are troubling. The employee, who has worked at the location for two years, told the newspaper the assembly line was unbearably hot because the air conditioner on the line wasn’t working properly and several employees in the last week passed out while working.

“I heard that [Pickard] complained of chest pain several times before she was sent to the break room,” the newspaper quotes the employee as saying. Pickard was sent to a break room at that point, but that room also had no air conditioning, something the employee said management does to discourage loitering in the break room. The room was so hot, he said, candy in the vending machines melted. Pickard eventually was sent to the front office, where the employee said Pickard sat for three hours before an ambulance was called. Pickard reportedly died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Sewon says it conducted a “thorough” preliminary investigation and concluded Pickard’s death was not work-related:

On May 29, Mrs. Pickard arrived to the line at 6:30 a.m. Then, on or about 8:26 a.m., the management was made aware of Mrs. Pickard’s condition. The EMS was immediately contacted around 8:27 a.m. and EMS arrived about 8:37 a.m. Mrs. Pickard entered the ambulance under her own strength around 8:42 a.m. and left the facility to go to the hospital.

The lawyer for the Pickard family, Robert Bruner, told the newspaper the company’s press release was, at best, misleading, and that the company was not forthcoming with the family about the reasons for the death.

The anonymous employee reported work conditions at the plant are similar to a sweatshop. “It’s a really hostile environment,” the newspaper quoted. “I think [the managers] seek to create an adversarial relationship with employees,” he said. “If they had hot pokers, they’d stab you with them…. I really believe they have contempt for their workers.”

Sewon was fined $135,900 by OSHA for safety violations three years ago. “There is no reason to leave employees unprotected,” said Andre Richards, then-director of OSHA’s Atlanta-West Office. “Management is aware of the deficiencies in their safety and health program and needs to take action.”

More on this story.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Walmart, Gap Refuse to Sign Bangladesh Safety Pact


Image via SumofUs on Facebook

Following the tragic building collapse that killed more than 1,300 Bangladeshi garment workers and recent fires that have claimed the lives of more than 400 Bangladeshi clothing workers, more than 40 clothing retailers have signed on to the Accord on Building and Fire Safety. But two of the major retailers that count on low-wage Bangladeshi workers to make the clothes they sell have refused.

Today, Walmart and Gap announced they would develop their own nonbinding safety code and turned their backs on the accord developed by international and Bangladeshi unions, retailers and other groups—groups with firsthand knowledge of what’s needed for worker safety and of the deadly consequences of inaction.

According to the fashion blog Fashionista, the Walmart-Gap plan:

probably won’t be of a legally-binding nature, since that’s what Gap objected to in the Bangladesh safety accord. While Gap and Walmart are no doubt trying to quell consumer backlash, it will likely backfire if this new plan doesn’t place enough legal responsibility on retailers’ shoulders.

In a joint statement, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the two labor federations, said they are:

deeply concerned about Walmart and Gap’s plan to move forward with a corporate-controlled, nonbinding process for adopting building safety standards in Bangladesh….This is a matter of life or death. Quite simply, nonbinding is just not good enough.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of the corporate watchdog SumOfUs.org, told Fashionista:

There is a serious gap in Gap’s credibility if it says that it only wants to sign the agreement if it is not legally binding.

In an effort to lend an air of legitimacy to their plans to develop their own safety accord, Walmart and Gap have asked former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and former Sen. Olympia Snowe to serve as “independent facilitators.” But, said the AFL-CIO and Change to Win:

While former Sens. George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe are both respected for their ability to forge compromises, we cannot afford to compromise the lives of Bangladeshi workers. We are determined to get this process right, and we will express our concerns to both former senators and ask that they not participate in undermining the ongoing and more productive process led by IndustriAll and UNI global labor federations.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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28-Year Inspection Gap at Deadly Texas Fertilizer Plant ‘Stunning Indictment’ of OSHA’s Underfunding

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

The West, Texas, fertilizer plant, where a fire and explosion last week claimed at least 14 lives—including 11 firefighters and EMTs—and injured more than 200, was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985.

In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.

While the plant reported that it was storing up to 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to state authorities—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh needed just two tons to blow up the federal building and kill 168 people—it did not report that fact to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:

Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.

While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.

There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.

In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”

What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.

BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.

While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.

Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says, “This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA.”

With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.

But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:

Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.

For a more detailed look at the regulatory history of the West Fertilizer plant, see this Huffington Post report by Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman.

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace by Ron Heflin. View more on Greenpeace’s Flickr page.

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