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Workplace violence has drawn plenty of attention from state lawmakers this year, most notably in California, where a significant measure addressing the issue was enacted. But some HR experts worry such legislation could increase employers’ liability exposure.
Since the beginning of the year, over 100 bills mentioning “workplace violence” have been introduced in 27 states, according to LexisNexis® State Net® data. A quarter of those measures have been enacted or adopted, while another 50% are still pending.
More than a third of the bills referring to “workplace violence” are specifically focused on trying to prevent such violence in health care settings, reflecting concerns about the growing violence risk for health care providers and other medical professionals.
With a national healthcare workforce crisis, state policymakers are under the gun to do all they can to make medical work as appealing as possible. Reducing the risk of experiencing violence on the job is just one route they’re taking, in addition to boosting pay, among other things.
Other bills attempt to do the same thing but for workers in public schools. There are also several proposals to better track incidents of workplace violence or require employers to enact training to stop it.
Another category of workplace violence legislation is aimed at creating legal mechanisms for employers to seek protective orders against violent employees.
A pending bill in the Nebraska unicameral (LB 5) by Sen. Carol Blood (D) seeks to make mental injuries resulting from workplace violence incidents compensable under Nebraska’s Workers’ Compensation Act.
The variety of legislative proposals is a reflection of the lack of consensus among policymakers about how to address workplace violence.
Twenty-seven states have considered over 100 bills this year referring to “workplace violence,” according to the LexisNexis® State Net® database. Eleven of those states have enacted such measures.
Perhaps the most prominent workplace violence bill passed this year has been California’s SB 553. Authored by Sen. Dave Cortese (D), the bill requires virtually all employers in the Golden State to not only establish “Workplace Violence Prevention Plans,” but also provide their workers with “interactive” workplace violence training and start logging violent incidents that occur at the workplace beginning on July 1, 2024.
Cortese, who represents the San Jose area, introduced the bill in response to a May 16, 2021 mass shooting at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard that left 10 people dead, including the shooter.
“On that horrible day, we quickly realized how safety protocols can and must be enhanced,” Cortese said in a press release.
He added, “SB 553 is the result of a months-long negotiation between workers, businesses and Cal/OSHA. This groundbreaking law will help workers and employers establish a plan for the types of workplace violence that are on the rise.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed SB 553 into law on Sept. 30, 2023.
“Employers are already required to take steps to protect workers from workplace hazards,” Newsom wrote in a signing message, “and this bill strengthens those protections by providing specific guidelines for what employers must do to protect workers from acts or threats of violence at work.”
But some are concerned about compliance implications of the bill.
Human Resources Director America (or HRD America for short), which covers the HR profession, wrote about SB 553 shortly after it was signed into law.
The October 17 story, by Stacy Thomas, quotes a representative of the California Chamber of Commerce who bemoaned the law’s “one-size-fits-all” approach and said public and private employers in California should be “very concerned” about the law because it applies the high standards that are already applicable to the health care industry—which is known to have workplace violence issues—“to even the smallest employer in the state.”
Thomas also quotes an attorney who complains that the bill paints with too broad of a brush, applying workplace violence regulations to many businesses where the risk of violence is “infinitesimal.”
In short, Thomas’ reporting reveals that HR experts are concerned about liability issues created by SB 553, including gray areas in the legislation that could be open to interpretation (and therefore open employers up to litigation).
California’s SB 553 represents the “nation's first general industry workplace violence prevention safety requirements for employers,” according to an analysis of the law by Littler Mendelson attorneys Adam Fiss, Alka Ramchandani-Raj, and David Dixon.
With the Golden State’s history of setting the legislative agenda for other states, it’s fair to wonder if the framework established by SB 553 might start spreading elsewhere.
Ramchandani-Raj told SNCJ it’s “absolutely” possible other states or even the federal government could follow California’s lead. She noted how the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had already followed California on several workplace standards.
She noted, however, that workplace violence is tricky, in that some incidents seem to be unpreventable, and risks vary by site and by community. As such, she said she expects there could be some “pushback” if the feds attempt to enact their own version of SB 553.
But progressive state legislatures? Ramchandani-Raj said she suspects some could try to copy what SB 553 seeks to accomplish.
“It just opens the door to states that want to be more preventative,” she said.
—By SNCJ Correspondent BRIAN JOSEPH
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