Legislation aimed at discouraging undercover investigations of farm and workplace conditions, as well as thwarting corporate espionage and theft of internal records, passed the state Senate in a 32-13 vote Monday night.
House Bill 405 creates a civil recourse for business owners to sue employees who use their positions to gain access to documents or to secretly record areas that aren’t open to the public. It would allow employers to sue for punitive damages of $5,000 a day in addition to compensation for actual damages.
Much of the focus of the legislation has been on opponents’ depiction of it as an “ag-gag” bill, aimed at thwarting animal welfare activists’ undercover videos of abuse. Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Autryville who is a farmer, has twice filed legislation that could be considered ag-gag.
He changed tactics this year by broadening to bill to affect just about any business, and include all employees who take a job with the intent of working against their employer’s interests. The bill does not exclude an employee who discovers illegal or unethical acts from the protection of the state’s whistleblower law.
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But Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Raleigh, said the state’s whistleblower protection law is inadequate in this situation. The whistleblower law only applies to employees’ wages, worker compensation or occupational health and safety violations.
“This bill does not have to be written so broadly,” Stein said. It would prevent a pharmacy compounding employee, for example, from taking a picture showing the use of out of date drugs.
He said the bill could be rewritten to protect employers “without putting public health, safety and welfare at risk.
“The public will be worse off as a result of this bill,” Stein said.
Jackson disagreed, and said Stein’s concerns were unnecessary.
Republicans prevented a vote on an amendment by Stein that would allow an employee to use as a defense proof that the employer had broken a law.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, saw it as a business-friendly bill.
“I think this is an important piece of legislation,” he said. “It provides protection of property rights. It sets the pendulum to the middle, and allows property owners to have rights… Otherwise, it’s skewed in wrong direction.”
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham, said he was concerned about the provision in the bill that allows judges to impose punitive damages. He said there was no way to know whether some judges might be heavy-handed in imposing big fines.
The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.
Farm Act of 2015
The Senate also tentatively passed legislation aimed at expanding North Carolina’s deer farming market. The state’s wildlife agency has restricted deer farming out of concerns about a devastating disease that has wiped out deer in other states. A final vote is expected later this week.
Senate Bill 513 would transfer the regulation of the industry from the Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, under the theory that deer farming is more akin to livestock than hunting. Deer are raised for meat and for their antlers, and to breed to sell.
The threat of chronic wasting disease remains an active one in a number states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. In April, two deer tested positive on a deer farmers property in Ohio. North Carolina’s wildlife officials oppose losing control of the regulation of deer farms, and some conservationists think protections will be loosened. Agriculture officials say they will continue to guard against he disease showing up in this state.
Other provisions in the farm bill would ease oversized-load regualtions to make it easier for farm products and equipment to move on the state’s highways, and it establishes permits for farm wineries.