On October 13, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) held a virtual public meeting about OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. During the meeting, contributors with a variety of affiliations and connections to OSHA and the meeting topic gave input on how OSHA promotes the whistleblower program and the dangers that migrant workers face when considering blowing the whistle or reporting concerns in the workplace.
Ahead of the meeting, individuals could submit written comments about the topic at hand. Several individuals from advocacy and nonprofit groups submitted comments advocating for the rights of migrant workers and outlining ways in which OSHA should be aware of the unique challenges migrant workers face in regards to whistleblower retaliation.
The meeting was held on Microsoft Teams. As an introduction, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA James Frederick welcomed attendees and said that protections offered through the OSH Act and all other statutes are “vital and important.” Valeria Treves, Advisor for Worker Voice Engagement for the DOL, said that “DOL is committed to upholding the rights of all workers.” Treves talked how DOL is increasing outreach efforts to workers who may not know they are being mistreated and remarked, “These workers need more than our thank-yous. They need action…every worker deserves to go home safe at the end of the day and receive their fair pay.”
A Spanish translator was present at the meeting to field comments from Spanish-speaking participants. The contributors in the meeting spanned several industries, such as nursing and healthcare, human resources, and railroad.
Several contributors talked about the challenges migrant workers face when considering blowing the whistle in the workplace: for many, the threat of deportation and dire retaliation looms too largely. Additionally, some speakers mentioned that retaliation like termination and deportation have a dire effect on not only the worker but their families as well.
Many participants had suggestions for outreach and education about worker’s whistleblower protections under OSHA: numerous speakers told the officials who were attending the call that OSHA needs to have more of a presence in the lives of workers and employers alike. One person suggested OSHA visit businesses and launch an education campaign about whistleblower rights, emphasizing to employers that workers have protections and that it is unacceptable to engage in whistleblower retaliation. Another person pointed out that if OSHA does inspections but announces the inspections prior to their arrival, companies will try to hide dangers in the workplace, so the individual suggested conducting unannounced visits to companies.
Additionally, multiple individuals mentioned improvements OSHA could make to its posters to promote awareness of whistleblower protections for workers; another suggestion was making a separate poster that focuses solely on whistleblower rights. One person suggested that OSHA host trainings on how to avoid contracting COVID-19, while others urged the agency to collaborate with the Solicitor’s Office and the Department of Justice to rigorously enforce whistleblower policies.
Overall, numerous speakers expressed confusion (or confusion on behalf of other workers) about the exact steps and processes to follow to blow the whistle, pointing to a lack of education about worker’s whistleblower rights. One speaker urged OSHA to have a sample whistleblower policy on their website for employers to look at.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a record number of whistleblower complaints filed to OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program: in Fiscal Year 2020, “whistleblowers filed 3,448 retaliation complaints,” according to previous WNN coverage. This was a fiscal year record for the number of whistleblower complaints filed to OSHA, according to the data made public by the agency. However, an October 2020 report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that OSHA was failing to truly pursue whistleblower retaliation complaints.
The report analyzed data on the 1,744 COVID-19-related retaliation complaints filed by workers from the beginning of the pandemic to August of 2020: NELP “found that over half of the complaints – 54% – were dismissed or closed without investigation. Additionally, just 1 in 5 complaints were docketed for investigations, and a total of only 2% of complaints were resolved in the period,” a WNN article states.
OSHA has not yet published Fiscal Year 2021 statistics on its “Data and Statistics” page for the Whistleblower Protection Program.