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What Is a Whistleblower?

A whistleblower is an employee who reports their own workplace for some violation of federal or state laws. Whistleblower laws are used as a blanket term for all employee protection provisions spread across a number of employment laws.

Whistleblowers file complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor. Most often, the complaint is filed with either the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Wage and Hour Division, or the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs depending on the laws that were allegedly broken. The Department of Labor will then adjudicate most of the complaints filed with them.

Whistleblower laws primarily protect the whistleblower from retaliation. Retaliation is defined by the Department of Labor as any adverse action that would dissuade a reasonable employee from raising concerns about or reporting possible violations. Retaliation can take a number of forms and harms not just the individual, but also anyone else who may consider speaking up in the future. Some actions that OSHA includes in its list of retaliatory actions include:

  • Creating an intolerable workplace until a whistleblower quits (constructive discharge)
  • Demoting whistleblowers
  • Denying benefits to employees who report misconduct
  • Denying overtime compensation or promotions to whistleblowers
  • Firing or laying off employees who speak up
  • Reassigning whistleblowers to less desirable positions
  • Reducing or changing the pay or hours of employees who report safety violations
  • Unfairly disciplining employees who complain

If any of these actions are taken against whistleblowers, the employer may open themselves up for even more disciplinary actions from the Department of Labor.

Key Takeaways

  • A whistleblower is an employee who reports violations of safety regulations, or state, or federal laws.
  • Whistleblower protections span a number of individual laws but all exist to ensure that a whistleblower does not suffer harmful retaliation as a result of reporting unlawful behavior.
  • If an employer chooses to retaliate against a whistleblower they will face additional fines, and penalties, and potentially be denied the right to do business with any federal agency. 
  • If you have reported a violation under whistleblower laws and fear retaliation, an experienced Employment Law attorney may be able to help protect you and assert your rights by utilizing experience and expert knowledge.

Whistleblowers and Employment Law

Whistleblowers are often featured in the media once their case has reached a certain level of prominence. Fewer people are aware of the process of filing a whistleblower complaint. 

Once the whistleblower makes their case to the relevant agency, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is assigned to the case. The ALJ sets a hearing in a practical location for the whistleblower to testify, usually the closest town to the whistleblower. After the hearing, the case proceeds to the lawsuit stage.

As with other lawsuits, there is a pre-hearing period where discovery is conducted and the ALJ receives motions. The Office of Administrative Law Judges will also provide both sides with settlement tools in the event that they decide not to pursue a full trial. The OALJ can provide mediators or settlement judges as the parties require.

Once the hearing commences, the whistleblower will be allowed to testify and submit evidence to support the allegations made in their complaint. At this time, all relevant evidence should be presented that demonstrates both the violations and any personal damages suffered. After the whistleblower has presented their evidence, the trial proceeds as normal until the verdict is reached.

The Department of Labor is also the entity in charge of investigating and punishing retaliation. According to the Department of Labor, employers are forbidden from retaliation against employees who disclose information to any other person or entity regarding the employer’s failure to comply with provisions or because they cooperated with a whistleblower investigation.

Specifically, employers are forbidden from “intimidating, threatening, restraining, coercing, blacklisting, discharging, or discriminating in any other manner” a worker who has acted as a whistleblower. If an employer is found to have retaliated or punished a whistleblower, they will face monetary penalties as well as debarment. Debarment is a punishment that prevents the company from doing any business with any federal agency for a period of time. 

Additionally, the whistleblower who suffered the retaliation may also be entitled to compensation. This compensation may come in many forms ranging from reinstatement, back pay, front pay, or other remedies as the agency sees fit. 

Bottom Line

If you are a whistleblower or are looking to become one and you want to be protected from potential retaliation, you will need the help of an experienced Employment Law attorney. An experienced Employment Law attorney can help you as you move through the whistleblower process in addition to protecting you from retaliation by asserting your legal rights.

An Employment Law attorney can zealously advocate on your behalf in order to achieve the best possible outcome for your case. Using their legal expertise, trial tactics, and expert witnesses your Employment Law attorney will be able to gather and present evidence in a way that most favors your claims.

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