Under the Dome

Animal advocates, labor ask governor for veto

The battle over House Bill 405, the employee “trespass” bill the Senate approved Monday, turned to the governor’s office on Tuesday.

Animal welfare and labor groups opposed to the bill began a campaign to convince Gov. Pat McCrory to veto the bill. Once it hits his desk he has 10 days to sign or veto it or let it become law without his signature.

It would allow employers to sue employees who go into areas closed to the public take photos or video of workplace conditions or steal data or records. Although it has mainly drawn opposition from animal welfare advocates because it would prevent private undercover investigations at farms, it would actually include any business.

There is disagreement about whether the state’s whistleblower law would protect workers who discover illegal practices. A previous court ruling has held that reporters who go undercover to expose workplace abuses are not protected by the First Amendment and can be held liable in a lawsuit.

The agricultural industry has responded in recent years with legislation that advocates call “ag-gag” bills, meant to muzzle undercover investigations that have led to surreptitious videos of animal abuse being made public.

Employees taken to court could be hit with punitive damages of $5,000 a day in addition to any actual damages a business could prove, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees.

The Humane Society of the U.S. issued a statement Tuesday calling the bill “a radical assault on whistleblowers by special interest groups seeking to protect unscrupulous businesses. HB405 would cover up abuse, including of the elderly, children and animals.”

The ASPCA recently commissioned a poll that found North Carolina likely voters oppose the legislation by nearly a three-to-one margin.

The state AFL-CIO issued a statement calling the bill dangerous.

“North Carolina shouldn’t treat workers trying to expose criminal activity by their employers like criminals themselves, but House Bill 405 comes close to doing just that,” said Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan.

A number of business groups support the bill.