On July 29th, Secretary of Labor and former Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh will deliver keynote remarks at the National Whistleblower Day 2021 celebration. This will be Secretary Walsh’s first public appearance as Labor Secretary focused specifically on whistleblower issues.
Walsh was confirmed as the Secretary of Labor on March 22, 2021. As the head of the Department of Labor (DOL), Walsh is in charge of the federal agency tasked with the oversight of 25 different whistleblower statutes, by far the highest number of whistleblower statutes enforced by a single agency.
The parent agency of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the DOL oversees investigations into whistleblower retaliation cases concerning COVID-19 and workplace safety. The COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in whistleblower retaliation cases filed with OSHA. In fiscal year 2020, which ended on September 30, 2020, whistleblowers filed 3,448 retaliation complaints with OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program (WPP). A vast majority of these complaints were related to workplace safety concerns.
However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a number of reports have highlighted problems with the WPP’s handling of COVID-19 whistleblower cases. In August of 2020, the DOL Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report which found that OSHA must improve its handling of whistleblower complaints during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The report details how the combination of staffing shortages within OSHA’s WPP and a rise in whistleblower complaints due to the pandemic severely hinders the agency’s ability to investigate claims in a timely manner.
The DOL OIG report was followed by an even more damning report issued by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in October of 2020. The NELP report found that OSHA had resolved only 2% of COVID-19-related retaliation complaints during the first six months of the pandemic.
In addition to COVID-19 workplace safety whistleblowers, the DOL oversees anti-retaliation protections for whistleblowers who disclose a wide range of other violations, from nuclear waste issues to aviation safety concerns.
Since Walsh took over leadership of the agency in March of 2021, the DOL has acted on a number of different whistleblower cases. For example, on July 15, the DOL announced it had filed a lawsuit against two North Texas dentists “on behalf of a dental hygienist and a dental assistant who were not reinstated” after they voiced concerns about coronavirus safety measures that would be instituted “when the practice reopened in spring 2020.”
On July 1, the DOL published a news release announcing that an OSHA investigation found Florida-based transportation supplier CSX Transportation “violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act and demonstrated a pattern of retaliation after firing a worker in December 2019 for reporting safety concerns.” OSHA ordered the company to pay $71,976 in back wages, interest, and damages, and $150,000 in punitive damages.