Know your ‘whistle-blower protection’

November 19, 2010

Every SMART Transportation Division freight and passenger rail member needs to know that federal law protects them from employer retaliation — and threats of retaliation — when they report to the carrier or a government agency alleged violations of safety or security laws or regulations, or allegations of fraud, waste or abuse of funds intended for rail safety or security.

Government agencies include federal regulatory or law enforcement agencies, and members of Congress or their staff.

This protection, provided by the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 2007, also extends to employees refusing to work under certain unsafe conditions, or refusing to authorize the use of any safety or security related equipment.

Retaliation, including threats of retaliation, is defined as firing or laying off, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to rehire, intimidation, reassignment affecting promotion prospects, or reducing pay or hours.

An employer also is prohibited from disciplining an employee for requesting medical or first-aid treatment, or for following a physician’s orders, a physician’s treatment plan, or medical advice.

This protection is known as “whistle-blower protection,” and the federal law is enforced by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Complaints must be filed with OSHA within 180 days of the alleged employer retaliation.

Relief may include reinstatement with the same seniority and benefits, backpay with interest, compensatory damages (including witness and legal fees), and punitive damages as high as $250,000.

A rail employee may file the complaint directly with OSHA, or may contact a UTU designated legal counsel, general chairperson or state legislative director for assistance.

A listing of designated legal counsel is available here, or may be obtained from local or general committee officers or state legislative directors.

A more detailed OSHA fact sheet may be downloaded and printed here.