The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced on February 14 that it is suing a Florida security contractor for firing an employee who raised safety concerns. The DOL is asking the company to pay the employee damages and compensatory damages, among other things.
The DOL alleges in its complaint that VRP Group Inc., also known as Regius Investigations and Protective Services as its business name, illegally fired an employee in August of 2020. According to the news release, the employee “raised concerns in a work group chat on a secure messaging app about safe firearm storage and coronavirus-related workplace hazards, including a lack of physical distancing and other potential exposure risks.” VRP Group then allegedly informed the worker that they had been terminated via the same messaging app, shortly after the worker sent the text.
“The worker was among a group of Regius employees assigned initially to supply security services to Entergy Texas to secure properties near Port Arthur,” the news release states. “After Regius directed the worker and their colleagues to relocate from an area hotel to temporary housing, the worker raised concerns with their supervisors about the move, citing COVID-19 policies and protocols and the need for secure firearm storage.”
After being terminated, the whistleblower filed a retaliation complaint with DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA’s Dallas Regional Office of Whistleblower Protection Programs conducted an investigation and found that VRP Group Inc. “violated Section 11(c)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act for terminating the employee because they engaged in the protected activities of making a good faith health and safety complaint.”
In its complaint, the DOL asks the court to order the company to pay the employee “damages, plus interest, for all past and future lost wages and benefits resulting from the termination; reimbursement for costs and expenses; compensatory damages, including for compensation for emotional pain and distress; and exemplary or punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.” The DOL also asks the court to “Permanently enjoin and restrain the employer, its officers, agents, servants, employees and those persons in active concert or participation with them, from violating the provisions of Section 11(c)(1) of the act.”
Additionally, the DOL wants VRP Group Inc. to be ordered to “[e]xpunge from all personnel and company records references to the circumstances giving rise to their unlawful suspension and termination of the complainant.” The complaint also mentions that VRP Group Inc. should “[p]ost a notice for employees stating that the defendants will not in any manner discriminate against any employee for engaging in activities protected by Section 11(c) of the OSH Act.”
“The U.S. Department of Labor’s action sends a clear and strong message to employers. Those who employ people must never forget that worker safety should be their first concern,” said Regional Solicitor of Labor John Rainwater in Dallas. “Punishing an employee who raises legitimate safety concerns will not be tolerated. We will pursue all appropriate legal remedies to protect workers’ rights to report an unsafe condition,” Rainwater said in the news release. The DOL’s “regional Office of the Solicitor in Dallas is litigating the case.”
OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program
OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program enforces 25 whistleblower statutes. However, OSHA has recently come under criticism: an article from Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, highlights the shortcomings of OSHA’s program and how staffing shortages have made it difficult for the agency to properly investigate whistleblower complaints. Read more here.