Gov. Maggie Hassan on Monday vetoed legislation that was designed to create a “positive work environment” for state workers, a bill she warned would have led to a flood of lawsuits against the state and disrupt workplace supervision.
Her veto was lambasted by the State Employee Association of New Hampshire, which represents some 10,000 state workers. According to SEA President Diana Lacey, many of those workers have been under pressure ever since the layoffs of the John Lynch administration.
“A lot of work and pressure has been dumped on middle managers, and they are not handling it well,” Lacey said. “The governor has heard some of these stories.”
In a three-page veto message, Hassan called some of the provisions of House Bill 591 poorly defined and unworkable.
“The bill also attempts to legislate politeness, manners and the interpersonal relationships of co-workers,” Hassan, a Democrat, wrote in her veto message.
She feared that the provisions — which required policy statements against abusive workplace conduct, a complaint procedure, and conflict resolution assistance — would eventually be expanded to private-sector employers.
The bill took more than a year to clear the Legislature. The House passed it in March 2013, prompting a letter of opposition signed by nearly every cabinet member.
Earlier this year, it passed the Senate and went to a conference committee. It cleared both legislative chambers in June by a voice vote, making it difficult to gauge support for an override vote of Hassan’s veto.
But Lacey and the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dianne Schuett, D-Pembroke, said it has strong bipartisan support. Former congressman Chuck Douglas, a Republican activist and lawyer who has sued the state on behalf of fired employees, testified in favor of the bill, they said.
Schuett said the bill gained support from lawmakers as they heard from state workers about bullying and intimidation they felt on the job.
Two business groups — the Business and Industry Association and the National Federation of Independent Business — applauded Hassan’s veto. Their remarks were distributed by Hassan’s office.
“Although House Bill 591 focuses specifically on public-sector employers, (the Business and Industry Association) is concerned the private sector would be the next logical target,” reads the statement from BIA, which represents mostly large employers and businesses.
But Lacey questioned the involvement of BIA in the debate.
She said there was no effort by her group to incorporate private-sector employers into the legislation. And she said she’s complained to Hassan’s office that the state Department of Health and Human Services, which opposed the bill, is a member of the lobbying group.
Hassan’s office acknowledged that some state agencies are members of the business-lobbying group. For example, the Department of Resources and Economic Development has been a member for 20 years, spokesman William Hinkle said.
“It’s important for state government to be interacting and talking with people across the state about the impact of laws, rules and regulations, and how we can make government work better for our citizens and our economy,” Hinkle said.
The legislation would have incorporated language prohibiting abusive work environments under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act. The existing avenues available to workers — a union grievance or a complaint before the Public Employee Labor Relations Board — often result in more intimidation, Schuett said.
She said employees became depressed; many sought counseling under the Employee Assistance Program. Others retired.
In her veto message, Hassan feared workers would claim an unreasonable workload, even if it was similar to their co-workers. She felt constructive criticism would be prohibited, and a supervisor who didn’t say hello could be branded abusive.