women at workA proposed bill before the Legislature of the Virgin Islands has the potential to hurt employers and business owners throughout the Territory and inhibit expansion of small businesses.

Bill No. 30-0349, known as the Virgin Islands Healthy Workplace Act of 2014, aims to address issues like bullying, abuse and harassment at work — which the bill’s sponsor says promote stress, poor employee morale and ongoing health issues like hypertension, impaired immune systems and depression. If passed, it would provide more legal relief to workers who believe that they have been harmed financially, physically or emotionally due to a so-called “abusive” work environment.

At issue is the fact that the proposed legislation, which would add a new chapter to Title 24 of the Virgin Islands Code, more broadly defines “abuse” and “bullying”. This would make it much easier for employees to claim that their employers have engaged in these practices and file a lawsuit. However, it leaves what constitutes “abuse” open to the wide interpretation of judges and juries.

While the issues that the Healthy Workplace Act aims to address are serious, the bill would cause a number of challenges for employers throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands. For one, it would open them up to more lawsuits — many of them frivolous — thereby drastically increasing the time and money they must spend on legal matters. This could impact bottom lines and inhibit growth, making it more difficult for local businesses to make the investments they need to truly thrive and hire more workers.

For opponents of the bill, the problem isn’t with the concept of reducing bullying and abuse at work, but rather that there are already strict territorial and federal laws banning all forms of harassment, discrimination and other unfair practices. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) maintains stringent regulations on issues such as the questions that may be asked during interviews and how employers treat their workers, and most businesses and organizations in the U.S. Virgin Islands have policies in their employee handbooks banning these types of activities.

In addition, similar laws passed in various U.S. states have failed to have much of an impact. Business leaders have pointed out that, while wasting taxpayer dollars, these programs have done little to address core problems associated with abuse and bullying in employment settings.

A great deal of focus has been placed on bullying in all parts of our society in recent years — from classrooms to work environments. Many businesses and organizations, including here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, have implemented comprehensive and effective internal anti-bullying measures to curb problematic behaviors and help ensure a safe and healthy workplace for all. However, it’s the opinion of many that this legislation may go too far in regulating the operations of small businesses that help grow our local economy.

BoltNagi is a well-respected and established business law firm serving organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.