Hawaii Department of Transportation employees push for law against workplace bullying and violence
by Clayton C. Ikei
Honolulu, HI, March 19, 2012: Hawaii Department of Transportation employees Donna Jinbo and Jennie Wolfe reached a settlement agreement on March 1, 2012 (Civil No. 10-1-1029-05 RAN) for a violation of the Whistleblowers Act by their employer after reporting that they endured years of workplace bullying by their supervisor.
In the settlement, they each were awarded $30,000, subject to approval by the Legislature. Also, their former supervisor, who was named as a defendant in their complaint, would no longer be allowed to supervise or work with them as long as they remain employed by the DOT Airports Division. Each party is also responsible for their own attorney’s fees and costs, which means taxpayers’ pay for the cost of the defense.
While this agreement may have “settled” workplace environment issues for Jinbo and Wolfe, during the process these DOT employees discovered first-hand how ineffective a Workplace Violence Policy can be if there is no law in place to back up the policy.
Jinbo and Wolfe are now lobbying the Hawaii State Legislature to pass Senate Bill 2487 on workplace violence to provide legal recourse for a public employee who has been victimized by another public employee. Passage of the law would ensure that all public workers who are victims of workplace violence would have the right to file a direct claim against their employer.
The Senate Judiciary and Labor (JDL) Committee passed the bill this session as SB2487 SD1, but the Senate Ways and Means (WAM) Committee, chaired by Sen. David Ige, deferred the bill on February 28.
After hearing SB2487 SD1, the JDL committee report on Feb. 17, 2012, stated the following: “Existing occupational safety and health laws obligate employers to provide a safe work environment. However, these laws do not provide for a safe work environment free from abusive conduct from employees. This measure provides protection against abusive conduct in the workplace as well as cause of action and remedies.”
Many examples of other employee complaints were listed in testimony submitted to WAM on Feb. 28, 2012, by Elizabeth-Ann Kahalaopuna Motoyama, former Equal Employment Officer for the state of Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT). She said that there were a total of seven employment-based lawsuits against HDOT presently filed in state or federal court, at various stages of litigation, some involving workplace violence in one form or another. Also, there are Workers’ Compensation claims filed as a result of workplace violence at different stages of that process.
Motoyama testified: “It is important that if nothing else, this committee will see the potential for liability if these acts of abuse and violence against state of Hawaii employees are not defined as prohibited and deterred by the existence of a law that prohibits such abhorrent practices. The cost of enforcement will be much less than the payout of damages.”
In her testimony to the WAM committee, Jinbo agreed, saying that the cost of litigation, now and in the future “is much larger than the cost of implementing a program and a law that will back the program.”
Wolfe’s testimony to WAM was also in agreement: “I urge the committee to pass this bill, which will put employers on notice that workplace violence; bullying and verbal harassment can no longer be tolerated and will be dealt with decisively. The state will also save taxpayers’ dollars because victims will no longer have to resort to a lawsuit for relief.”
A 2007 Zogby poll revealed that 49 percent of American workers have been subjected to workplace violence. In the case of Jinbo and Wolfe, the supervisor was temporarily transferred out of the office when restraining orders were originally filed in 2008, but when DOT directed the supervisor to be placed back in her former workplace supervising Jinbo and Wolfe, the department offered them a demotion if they felt they could not work under their former supervisor’s supervision. Jinbo and Wolfe chose to go out on leave. The plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit. In December 2010, Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura granted a preliminary injunction ordering DOT to separate Jinbo and Wolfe from their former supervisor. The case was settled, prior to trial and DOT agreed to pay $30,000 per client, subject to legislative approval, and that their former supervisor would never supervise or work in the same locale as Jinbo or Wolfe.
Although SB2487 SD1 has been deferred at this time, the public is encouraged to contact their Senators and Representatives and ask them to reconsider giving this measure another hearing this session.
LINK: SB2487 SD1