The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ordered Southern Air, Inc. to pay more than $400,000 to an employee who blew the whistle on safety concerns. One month later, OSHA ordered Southern Air, a global air cargo carrier, to withdraw its lawsuit against nine other former employees for defamation, and pay those employees $7.9 million in wages, damages and attorneys' fees.
Defamation or protected activity?
One flight crew member at Southern Air filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA, alleging that he was terminated after he complained to management about inadequate rest breaks and work hours that exceeded those permitted under the Federal Aviation Administration rules. OSHA ordered Southern Air to pay more the employee $400,000.
In May 2008, Southern Air filed a lawsuit accusing nine former employees of defamation, based on the health and safety concerns they raised. According to Southern Air's lawsuit, these employees made defamatory statements to customers and the business community, with the intent of harming the company's business. However, these employees also filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA.
OSHA's investigation determined that the company's defamation lawsuit was also filed in retaliation for the workers' protected activities under the whistleblower provisions of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century. In addition to the monetary damages Southern Air was ordered to pay, it was also required to purge the personnel files and other records of those employees, of all warnings, reprimands or derogatory references resulting from protected whistleblower activity.
Why are these orders important?
Although these two cases are separate, they are both significant in reminding employers that there is no tolerance for retaliation against employees who raise legitimate health and safety concerns. U.S. Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, had this to say:
This order sends a strong and clear message that these and other workers have the right to raise safety issues with their employers and regulatory agencies without fear of retaliation and intimidation. The Labor Department will vigorously investigate such allegations and, where merited, order appropriate remedies for workers.
Am I a Whistleblower?
A whistleblower is someone who exposes alleged dishonest or illegal misconduct taking place in an organization. The misconduct can be a violation of a law or regulation, or a threat to public interest. Common types of misconduct include health and safety violations or corruption. Whistleblowers can make their allegations either internally, to people within the company, or externally, to law enforcement, the media or the like. Whistleblowers of all types are afforded protection for their actions.
If you feel you have been the victim of retaliation for whistleblowing, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.