In 2008, 31-year-old Jodie Zebell appeared to have a full life. The UW-Madison graduate was married with two young children and a part-time job as a mammographer at a La Crosse clinic, where she was praised as a model employee.
But soon afterward, Zebell became the target of co-workers who unfairly blamed her for problems at work. After she was promoted, the bullying intensified, her aunt Joie Bostwick recalled during a legislative hearing Wednesday attended by members of her niece's family, including Zebell's mother, Jean Jones of Spring Hill, Fla.
After her niece had a run-in with her supervisor, Bostwick said, the boss joined in the harassment, filling Zebell's personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.
"This went on for a series of months," said Bostwick, a Blue Mounds native who now lives in Naples, Fla. "It just got worse and worse."
On Feb. 3, 2008, the day before she was to receive a poor job review, Jodie Zebell took her own life. A Madison attorney told the family it had no legal recourse since she wasn't protected from workplace discrimination as would be an older worker or a racial, ethnic or religious minority.
"We were astounded to find there was nothing we could do. There were no laws unless you were part of a protected class," Bostwick said.
The tragedy sparked Zebell's family to join a national movement seeking to ban bullying from workplaces and give victims — who prefer to call themselves "targets" — tools to stop the harassment or sue abusive employers and bullies in court.
On Wednesday, the Assembly Labor Committee heard 90 minutes of often emotional testimony on a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, that would require employers to implement and enforce anti-bullying policies — or face their abused employees in court.
Seventeen states are considering such legislation, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute of Bellingham, Wash., whose director, Gary Namie, also testified at the hearing.
Under the proposal, workers who believe they have been harmed by "abusive conduct" could sue to force the employer to stop the bullying, to seek reinstatement or to get compensation for lost wages, medical costs, attorneys' fees, emotional distress and punitive damages.
The bill defines abusive conduct as "repeated infliction of verbal abuse, verbal or physical conduct that is threatening, intimidating or humiliating, sabotage or undermining of an employee's work performance or exploitation of an employee's known psychological or physical vulnerability."
Vaguely worded bill
Representatives of business groups told the committee the bill is too vaguely worded and would invite frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled and incompetent workers.
"AB 894 paints a target on the back of small employers ... (who) can't afford to fight claims in circuit courts," said Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
Andrew Cook of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a consortium of large business groups, agreed. Cook said if Wisconsin becomes the first state to pass such a bill, it would harm the state's ability to attract business.
But at the hearing, such concerns were largely overshadowed by these stories:
• A Spanish teacher testified she was "iced out and isolated" for four years by older colleagues in her school district. Once a marathon runner, Susan Stiede now suffers from clinical depression, chest pain, panic attacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She quit teaching in 2009.
• A nervous Stephanie Endres told of being harassed by a unnamed female boss in a state agency that she declined to name. Intimidated by Endres' knowledge of the agency, the new supervisor circulated untrue rumors about her, Endres said, banished her to an office with no phone and separated her from her co-workers. When Endres took a six-month stress leave, the supervisor started bullying other members of the staff, she said.
• Dr. Deborah Lemke told lawmakers of an unnamed Wisconsin hospital where the nursing supervisor verbally bullied nurses on his staff. When she intervened on behalf of the nurses, Lemke said, holding back tears, she herself became a target.
Corliss Olson, associate professor at the UW-Extension's School for Workers, said the bill is "desperately" needed.
Olson said most targets of bullying are "normal, competent people" who can be driven to disability or even death.
"This is a viciousness in the workplace that we need to stop," Olson said. "We can and we must change our workplaces so they are civil."