Each year, Labor Day serves as an opportune time to reflect on the contributions of workers who blow the whistle. Workers expose unsafe working conditions, frauds swindling the government out of millions of dollars, and abuses of power in organizations both public and private. Strong whistleblower laws are labor laws, they protect workers from retaliatory employers and allow them to speak out about a wide-range of issues.
Because of a growing recognition of the contributions of employees who blow the whistle and the terrible retaliation they face, the number of whistleblower laws continues to grow, expanding the areas where workers can safely blow the whistle. Strong bipartisan support in Congress, the attention of the Biden-administration, and renewed commitment by federal agencies has ushered in a new era of whistleblower protection.
Whistleblower protection laws continue to receive support from members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. For example, legislation to strengthen protections and incentives for bank employees who blow the whistle on money laundering and sanctions violations is cosponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). A companion version of their bill in the House was unanimously approved by the Committee on Financial Services.
With this strong bipartisan support in Congress, the Biden administration has signaled an increased focus on the power of whistleblowers. At the end of 2021, the administration released the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption. The document outlines an approach for the United States to elevate its fight against corruption. The strategy includes enlisting whistleblowers to fight illicit finance and protecting whistleblowers who expose corruption across the globe. This strategy should act as a catalyst for both the administration and Congress to continue to build upon existing whistleblower laws.
Congress and the White House’s renewed focus on whistleblower laws is echoed by the increasing number of federal agencies who have highlighted the importance of whistleblower protections. In 2021, for the first time ever the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, officially recognized National Whistleblower Day and committed the Department of Labor (DOL) to protecting employees from whistleblower retaliation.
Secretary Walsh’s speech has been reflected in renewed enforcement efforts taken by the DOL against retaliatory employers. The DOL oversees the enforcement of 25 different whistleblower statutes covering a range of issues, from nuclear safety to financial crimes. On September 1, the DOL ordered Wells Fargo to pay $22 million to an employee who blew the whistle on alleged financial misconduct and was subsequently fired. On August 9, the DOL ordered a helicopter ambulance service to reinstate and pay $188,000 to a helicopter pilot who was fired for refusing to fly in hazardous conditions.
The DOL was one of a number of federal agencies that recognized National Whistleblower Day on July 30, 2022. The Offices of Inspectors General for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Small Business Association, and the Social Security Administration as well as the Office of Personnel Management, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Securities and Exchange Commission all recognized the day in some shape or form. The agencies typically posted information informing their employees on their whistleblower rights and the key role whistleblowers play in ensuring good governance and healthy workplaces.
The SEC in particular has shown its commitment to supporting whistleblowers. On August 26, the agency approved rule changes to its highly successful whistleblower award program which are designed to better incentivize whistleblowers. One rule change encourages whistleblowers to provide information to and cooperate with multiple federal agencies in order to best utilize their information and hold criminals accountable.
In his statement supporting the rule changes, SEC Chair Gary Gensler noted the program “has greatly aided the Commission’s work to protect investors.” He went on to explain that “the SEC has used whistleblower information to obtain sanctions of over $5 billion from securities law violators, return over $1.3 billion to harmed investors, and award over $1.3 billion to whistleblowers for their service.”
The power of whistleblowing is further reflected by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) success in holding fraudsters accountable under the False Claims Act (FCA). Alongside the Dodd-Frank Act, the law which established the SEC Whistleblower Program, the FCA is one of the nation’s premier whistleblower award laws. In fiscal year 2021, whistleblower-initiated FCA cases led to over $1.6 billion in recoveries. Recently employees blowing the whistle led to a DOJ action sanctioning four California healthcare providers and organizations $70 million for submitting false claims to California’s Medicaid program. The FCA ensures that employees who blow the whistle on fraud committed by their employers are protected from retaliation and awarded for their role in recovering funds.
Given the success of whistleblower award laws like the Dodd-Frank Act and the False Claims Act, Congress needs to work to pass legislation expanding whistleblower award laws into other areas. The more areas covered by whistleblower award laws, the more employees who will feel comfortable coming forward and blowing the whistle on their employer.
Not only do whistleblower laws work, they are also extremely popular with the American public. A Marist poll commissioned by Whistleblower Network News revealed that over 80% of Americans think Congress should prioritize stronger protections for whistleblowers disclosing corporate fraud.
Beyond passing new laws, it is also essential that recently passed legislation is properly implemented. Two whistleblower award laws, one for auto-safety whistleblowers and one for money-laundering whistleblowers, have no rules governing their implementation. The Department of Transportation is six years passed the Congressionally-mandated deadline to publish rules implementing the auto-safety whistleblower program and the Department of Treasury has still not published rules for its money-laundering whistleblower program.
On this Labor Day, all Americans should reflect on the sacrifices employees blowing the whistle have made and their contributions to the nation. Whistleblower employees have saved lives by exposing defective bullet proof vests, held Big Tech accountable by instigating the historic penalties against Facebook, freed wrongfully convicted individuals by disclosing misconduct at the FBI crime lab, and upended the illicit Swiss banking system by blowing the whistle on U.S. citizens’ illegal use of Swiss banks as tax havens.
Stronger whistleblower protections create a stronger and safer American workforce. This Labor Day it is important to reflect on the work that has been done as well as the work that needs to be done.
Among other actions, Congress needs to act immediately to pass the anti-money laundering and sanctions whistleblower reform legislation. The National Whistleblower Center has issued an action alert calling on individuals to urge Congress to act now and reform the AML Whistleblower Program.