On November 17 and 18, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced two decisions regarding whistleblower retaliation cases.
DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aims “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers,” according to its website. The agency’s Whistleblower Protection Program enforces the whistleblower provisions under 25 whistleblower statutes.
In the first news release, the DOL announced that the agency’s Office of the Solicitor, which handles its legal services, is filing a lawsuit against PACCAR Inc., “one of the world’s largest manufacturers of light, medium, and heavy-duty trucks.” The lawsuit followed an OSHA investigation that found the company violated federal whistleblower protections by retaliating against a PACCAR employee.
According to the news release, the whistleblower raised concerns about COVID-19 exposure at a PACCAR facility in Texas in March of 2020. However, “a representative of PACCAR — doing business as Peterbilt Motor Co. — told the employee that the company planned to clean work spaces and continue work as usual.” When PACCAR found out that the whistleblower “expressed concerns publicly about the company’s response and their concern for the safety of other employees, the company fired the employee.”
The subsequent OSHA investigation found that the employee’s firing was an act of retaliation because the employee “engaged in protected activity by raising their workplace safety concerns.” Thus, DOL’s Office of the Solicitor filed a lawsuit against PACCAR Inc. on November 17 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
In the lawsuit, the DOL “asks the court to order the company to comply with anti-retaliation provisions in the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” The agency also asks the court to order PACCAR to reinstate the employee who raised their concerns “to his former employment position with the company,” pay the employee “back wages, interest, compensatory and punitive damages and other remedies; and expunge the employee’s personnel record.”
“Our investigation found that PACCAR terminated a worker for reporting their concerns that the company’s response to the dangers of the coronavirus would not prevent its spread,” said Regional OSHA Administrator Eric S. Harbin in Dallas. “Every worker has the right to report safety concerns of any kind without fear of retaliation.”
Crane Masters Inc.
On November 18, the DOL issued a news release announcing an order for Houston-based company Crane Masters Inc. “to pay a former employee nearly $24,000 in back wages, interest and damages after firing the worker in June 2020 for refusing to drive in excess of federal limits and reported fatigue.”
According to the news release, the Houston-based Crane Masters is a mobile crane rental company that “provides hydraulic truck cranes and rigging services to several industries.” OSHA found that “Crane Masters Inc. violated the Surface Transportation Assistance Act when it retaliated against the employee on June 5, 2020, for refusing to exceed safe driving limits set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the news release states. The employee who voiced their concerns about working hours had “worked 19 hours the day prior and could not get the required time off before returning to work,” thus “making it unsafe to operate a vehicle.” The exact breakdown of what Crane Masters will pay the employee is almost “$14,000 in back wages, interest and compensatory damages, and $10,000 in punitive damages.”
“Crane Masters Inc. punished a driver who refused to jeopardize their safety and that of others on the road by violating federal laws that restrict how many hours a truck driver may operate a commercial vehicle each day,” said Regional Administrator Harbin. “Commercial truck drivers, mechanics and other workers are critical to our nation’s transportation infrastructure and our economy, but they should never be forced to put themselves or others at risk because of an employer’s concern for profit, or fear retaliation for exercising their legal rights.”
OSHA’s Whistleblower Protections
In a keynote speech at the 2021 National Whistleblower Day celebration, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh highlighted the importance of whistleblowers in the workforce. “They’ve not only protected themselves, they’ve protected their coworkers, and they’ve protected their community. They perform a public service, to prevent wrongdoing from happening again, and we thank them,” Walsh said.
He also emphasized that retaliation is not tolerated: “I want to be clear: every worker has the right to speak up. If they’re mistreated, denied their rights, or have concerns about safety. And when an employer retaliates, it’s not only wrong, it’s illegal.”