BOSTON (SHNS) – Employees who are subject to psychological abuse, such as being excessively monitored, publicly degraded, or given unreasonable workloads, could gain stronger workplace protections under a proposal that drew emotional testimony during a legislative hearing Tuesday.
A bill from Reps. Jessica Giannino and Carol Doherty (H 1882) would make it illegal for employers to engage in psychological abuse — defined as “mentally provocative harassment or mistreatment that has the effect of hurting, weakening, confusing or frightening a personal mentally or emotionally,” according to the legislation — and requires them to install safeguards to ensure a safe working environment. About 40 lawmakers have signed onto the legislation, which was filed in January, and is based on a Rhode Island law, according to information provided by Doherty’s office.
“It is a known fact that instances of workplace harassment are unfortunately higher for women and people of color,” Doherty told the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. “The human cost to the employee as a result of psychological abuse includes anxiety, depression, burnout, (and) heart disease.”
Employers would need to adopt anti-retaliation policies, monitor incidents dealing with psychological abuse, and initiate investigations within five business days of receiving an employee complaint about psychologically abusive behavior, under the legislation.
Should employers fail to adequately address abuse, workers would have the ability to sue them and seek economic and punitive damages, as well as compensation for medical expenses connected to psychological or physical injuries, according to Doherty’s office. Workers could also file a restraining order against employees who violate the proposed law.
Deb Falzoi, co-founder of an organization called End Workplace Abuse, said existing anti-discrimination law is not sufficient for handling workplace abuse. Stereotypes among workers, particularly women and people of color, and their employers translate into “privileges and oppressions,” she told the committee.
“These stereotypes dictate who controls the narrative through closed-door conversations and subjective performance reviews, versus who internalizes these narratives as trauma, wondering if they’re the problem and feeling less than, fearful and ashamed,” Falzoi said. “They dictate who can speak up, knowing they’ll be given weight and respect without fear or retaliation … who can minimize others to maintain their power, who can easily find acceptance in the power groups because they look like them — versus who fears speaking up because they’ll be gaslit or minimized, or who sees coworkers who look like them rendered invisible, easy to ignore and outnumbered when they speak up.”
Other examples of psychological abuse in the legislation include assigning long-term tasks without compensation, placing employees in dangerous or “physically threatening” conditions, “hostile” shouting, taking credit for one’s work, spying on equipment, disclosing private facts, physical isolation, and “degrading” position changes.
Richard Ravosa, a longtime attorney, told lawmakers he has counseled and represented thousands of Massachusetts women who have needed to deal with ongoing workplace bullying.
“And why do they tolerate it? I’ll give you a few reasons,” Ravosa said at the hearing. “Because the rent is past due, because the electricity shut off, because the oil tank is empty, because the car payment is late, because there are young mouths to feed at home or because there are aging parents to care for.”