Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Governor signs into law ‘historic’ workplace harassment bill

By on August 7, 2020

Gov. Wanda Vázquez (Courtesy)

Measure establishes penalties for violations, compensation to victims 

SAN JUAN – Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced signed into law on Friday the Puerto Rico Workplace Harassment Prohibition & Prevention Act, which she said establishes a public policy against workplace harassment, including its scope of application, procedures, prohibitions and sanctions. 

The new law, which applies to public employees as well as private employees, empowers the Puerto Rico Labor and Human Resources Department (PRLHD), the Puerto Rico Human Resources Administration and Transformation Office, and the legislative and judicial branches of government to adopt and promulgate the necessary regulations to administer and enforce the provisions of the law. 

“Workplace harassment is unacceptable, and with this law, we expect to take measures to establish a clear public policy against situations that in some way victimize employees,” the governor said during a law signing ceremony at La Fortaleza governor’s mansion. “Work environments must be free of harassment and situations that do not allow persons to exercise their functions fully. The public policy of our administration is that the dignity of humans is inviolable.”  

Calling it a “historic bill,” Vázquez said that “many Puerto Ricans in the private and public sectors have, for decades, endured situations that constitute workplace harassment, and today we are outlawing workplace harassment.” 

The legislation, one of several measures submitted by the Vázquez administration during the special session of the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly that ended on Thursday, defines workplace harassment or “mobbing” as consisting of “repeated verbal, written and physical abuse by employers, supervisors or employees, outside of the legitimate interests of the employer’s company,” that is not desired by the affected employees and violates their protected constitutional rights. 

Such behavior “entails hostile communication devoid of ethics that is managed in a systematic way by one or various individuals, and that as a consequence of this, [the victims are] thrown into a situation of loneliness and defenseless, on the base of frequent and persistent harassment actions throughout a prolonged period of time.” 

The law establishes that all employers will have the responsibility of taking measures to eliminate and prevent the occurrence of workplace harassment. 

Filed by Reps. Enrique Meléndez, Angel Peña and Jesús Santa as House Bill 306, the measure establishes a “vigorous public policy against all types of workplace harassment that affects the performance of workers, alters industrial peace and violates the dignity of workers, regardless of their employment category or classification.” 

Under this law, Puerto Rico workers are provided with a cause of action to prevent workplace harassment, as well as providing for the payment of compensation to victims for damages as a consequence of this practice. 

Vázquez said that several measures to address workplace harassment had been filed at the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly but none of them prospered. The last such measure approved by lawmakers was vetoed in 2014 by then Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. 

Meléndez said that the bill signed on Friday by the governor is the “most important labor rights measure in the past 40 years,” adding that Puerto Rico is among a few jurisdictions in the Americas to have such legislation. 

The lawmaker said that the PRLHD Antidiscrimination Unit receives hundreds of complaints related to employment discrimination due to race, sex, social conditions or origins, nationality, religious and political ideas, marital status, and disability, among others. However, none of these dispositions covers “one of the worst situations an employee could face in a professional environment: mobbing,” he said. 

“For me, it is a privilege and honor to be here. It is a very important moment because since I arrived at the House of Representatives in 2011, we presented a bill to that effect and now, nine years later, we were able to approve it and make it into law,” the New Progressive Party majority lawmaker said during the La Fortaleza ceremony, recalling how other lawmakers had tried unsuccessfully to pass workplace harassment legislation. “It is a struggle that is not mine, [but] of the times of Velda González, Lucy Arce and others who have presented different legislative measures, but were not approved.” 

Meléndez said that workplace harassment has “grave consequences on the physical and emotional health of victims,” adding that “we expect this law to be immediately implemented in all workplaces and that it be obeyed.” 

At the ceremony, Vázquez pledged to sign a bill approved during the special session that provides for a salary hike for nurses in public and private medical facilities as soon as it is sent to her. The last legislated salary increase for nurses was signed into law in 2005. 

“Nurses are the heart and spine of the healthcare system,” the governor said. “We acknowledge that not enough has yet been done to be able to compensate them adequately for their work and long shifts that they occasionally do to protect our health. However, we are pleased to be able to take the first step so that after so many years they receive the best compensation.” 

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