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Members of the Public Employees Federation, which represents 50,000 state employees, marched from Albany Hilton to Empire State Plaza last week to raise awareness about bullying and harassment on the job, problems they say have gotten worse in recent years.
But because workers have frequently experienced retaliation for speaking out about harassment or abuse they’ve faced at work, “People are afraid to speak out,” PEF President Wayne Spence told The Chief in a recent phone interview.
Spence said that the union has tried to have meetings with state leaders about this issue since the Andrew Cuomo administration.
“We’ve asked about bullying and the state says ‘just because someone says it’s bullying doesn’t mean it is.’ That means we need to codify what bullying is,” he said Monday.
The union is pushing for legislation — passed by the Assembly last year but which did not make it out of committee in the Senate — that would define abusive behavior, bullying, and cyberbullying in the workplace, and would require all state employees to receive training aimed at preventing workplace abuse.
Spence said he’s seen bullying on the job since he became a state employee in 1993, but that there has been a recent uptick, particularly in the state Department of Health and the Office of Medicaid.
In an open letter posted on PEF’s website, the PEF president highlighted examples of managers allegedly being abusive towards his members in the workplace.
“A manager sat at a member’s desk and sent an email, pretending to be the member, saying unions are a sham and he was resigning from his union post. That manager was promoted three weeks later. That’s unacceptable!” he wrote.
“At the Syracuse office of the Department of Health, we’ve received several reports of the same three rogue managers, some from Health Research, Inc., leading the hateful treatment of a long-term state employee,” Spence continued. “It’s unconscionable that our State government allows this type of behavior to exist.”
He added that workers who report bullying are typically dismissed as “disgruntled workers.” He also alleged that toxic managers will “weaponize” the civil-service law by forcing workers who report harassment or a toxic workplace to get a psychological evaluation or to see a state doctor.
Spence said there has been a recent push against toxic work environments among young workers, particularly because during the pandemic, many state workers were able to work from home — away from such abuse — but have since returned to working in offices.
Although the bill wouldn’t resolve issues such as retaliation, “We feel the legislation is a start,” the union leader said. “Right now, we have nothing at all. Codifying says ‘Here is what a toxic workplace is.’”
The union, which met with leadership in the governor’s office Monday to discuss the topic, is advocating for the bill to be passed next year.
Justin Henry, a spokesperson for the Governor’s office, said in a statement that “Since Day One of her administration, Governor Hochul has made it a top priority to create a safe, welcoming environment for New York State workers free of harassment, bullying, and discrimination and the Governor will continue to take action to advance that goal.”
Manhattan State Senator Robert Jackson, who co-sponsored the legislation, joined the PEF members at the Sept. 21 rally.
“State workers deserve a safe and respectful workplace,” he wrote on social media.
Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Senate’s Labor Committee and sponsored the legislation, said in a statement that "A job in the public sector used to be something people aspired to, and we need to restore that reputation by making the public sector a dignified and respectful workplace."
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