Raleigh, N.C. — State lawmakers gave final approval Monday night to a measure that would allow business owners to sue employees who conduct undercover investigations.
House Bill 405, the "Property Protection Act," now goes to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory.
The bill would allow a business or property owner to seek damages against any employee who intentionally enters an unauthorized area of that business or property to record video or sound.
Backers of the proposal say it will protect business owners from rivals or activist groups that may send in members to be hired and work undercover with the intent of stealing information or exposing workplace practices.
Animal rights organizations say it's an "ag-gag" bill – that is, it's specifically intended to prevent undercover operations at agriculture facilities such as poultry farms. Several such operations in North Carolina in recent years have produced video of workers abusing animals.
However, the final version of the legislation is not limited to agriculture. It would apply to any employee in any place of business.
Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said it "does not touch whistleblower laws." But critics of the bill, including Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, argue it will ultimately harm the public.
Stein pointed out that North Carolina's whistleblower laws protect employees only in matters of employee rights, such as wages, workers' compensation and worksite health and safety rules.
"Our whistleblower law does nothing for an employee who brings forth a violation of the law that affects the general public," he said, using the example of a bona fide worker at a drug compounding lab who might find his employer using out-of-date drugs but would become civilly liable if he were to take a picture of the expired drug label.
"We should not be going so far," he cautioned. "The public will be worse off as a result of this bill. There will be violations of law that will occur that would not occur because of this bill."
Stein tried to amend the bill to allow employees a defense if what they recorded was illegal activity, but Senate Republicans would not allow the amendment to be voted on.
Jackson insisted that Stein had misread the bill.
"This has to do with employees going to places they’re not allowed to go," he said. "As long as they’re allowed to move in those facilities, they wouldn’t be liable."
Jackson also said the employee in such a case could turn over any evidence of a crime to "authorities."
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said the proposal "sets the pendulum to the middle and allows property owners to have the same rights as someone else. Without this bill, it's skewed in the wrong direction."
The final vote was 32-13.