March 19th, 2015

Times-Argus: Make workplaces safe from bullies


By Sherill Gilbert, Times-Argus, March 3, 2015

Since 2007, the healthy workplace bill has remained on the committee’s wall. Each new biennium this bill has been re-introduced. In January, Sen. Anthony Pollina has once again sponsored the bill. In the midst of budget issues, the talk of cutting jobs and programs only furthers the need to pass this bill. The bill would not require the state to fund this bill. It will increase productivity; it will mean employees would thrive in a safe and healthy environment; it will mean fewer sick calls and a decrease in errors. Perhaps even more important would be improvements to the morale and loyalty of staff.

For the state this would translate into more tax revenues to help lessen Vermont’s money woes. I am sure many of you are asking how this could be.

Bullying has been estimated to cost the United States $300 billion that is passed on to goods and services, including health care. Bullies are extremely costly as well as a threat to the targets, families, community and health of the economy.

As the Vermont state coordinator, I have spoken with Vermonters in all 14 counties. I have had individuals come to my house. I have had targets, especially in the early stages, call me at night. I have seen some who have lost their ability to complete a thought and would suddenly veer off into another event that had happened. They wanted to get it out, but they were trapped inside this tumultuous ordeal that held them hostage. There were two individuals who had suicidal ideation. I have sat in emergency waiting rooms to have them evaluated.

I have done this since 2007, when I was asked by Gary Namie, in business psychology from Bellingham, Washington, to join his grass-roots movement for the healthy workplace bill. I read the bill and asked one individual I had dealt with, a president of human resources, whether, if the bill were law, he might have altered his treatment of myself and countless others knowing he would be held accountable for his actions. He said yes, he thought the bill would have prevented him from targeting certain employees, knowing he would be held accountable in a civil court.

There have been three surveys done by WBI in the United States on bullying. The first happened in 2007 on workplace bullying. The estimated numbers for Vermonters who were being bullied, have been bullied or had a family member or close friend who had been bullied, was surreal: 121,000. When it happened to me I was clueless, I was busy doing a job I loved. My strength came from the physicians I worked with and the patients and families I was able to help and continue to help today.

Since 2007 to the latest 2014 WBI survey, the numbers have increased to 150,000 Vermonters. Fifty-seven percent of Vermonters have been impacted by bullying. The estimated employment figure for Vermont is 322,000 workers.

Bullying not only impacts the target, but it also their families, physically, psychologically and financially. Some 45 percent of those bullied will suffer health and psychological harm. This cycle keeps recycling, as does our Legislature, which has decided for the people that this should be the norm. Bullying is the only legalized abuse.

There is hope. We have 37 other states that have coordinators such as myself who are lobbying for the healthy workplace bill. It is only a matter of time before this becomes law not only at state levels but also federal law.

In 1999, I testified before the committees and public hearings for the whistle-blower law that passed in 2004. I testified about bullying in schools, talking about how my multi challenged sister was bullied on the playgrounds and in the classroom by a few nuns. I have lobbied for the disabled, for education and for Obamacare. I was part of a committee held by Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan regarding bullying in the workplace. During that time the message I received from some of the members was that yes, they were aware of bullying, but they talked about the liability if the bill were to become law. The fear of all the lawsuits they would have to face was overwhelming. They failed to acknowledge the benefits to the state, but more importantly to Vermonters.

The fact is the state does not have the money or the staff to investigate. I have helped many individuals fill out the paperwork, and only one case actually got any results, and they did not return her evidence until near the end of the time limit to file a lawsuit. In the end, she got nearly nothing from the lawsuit. Today, she can’t leave her home due to the psychological harm she suffered at the hands of administration who became her ultimate abusers. Her life as a hermit continues. The state does not prosecute; it also does not have the staff to do an unprejudiced investigation. The decision of the state will determine if you have a civil case.

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Sherill Gilbert is the WBI Vermont State Coordinator. Read about her advocacy on the VT State Page of the Healthy Workplace Bill website.

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