Washington Update: Protecting whistleblower protections
When an employee steps up to do the right thing, he or she should be rewarded. Unfortunately, sometimes that worker is punished instead.
This isn’t idle speculation. In 2013, OSHA received more than 3,000 complaints from whistleblowers who claimed they were retaliated against for reporting employer workplace violations.
OSHA is tasked with enforcing whistleblower provisions in 22 different statutes covering workplace safety, health insurance, and financial and motor vehicle safety laws, among many others. The agency protects employees who report violations of these laws against a range of retaliations, including termination, demotion and threats.
“Their portfolio of whistleblower statutes is huge, and their work in trying to administrate it is a real challenge,” said Ron White, director of regulatory policy for the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based government watchdog group.
According to the center’s inflation-adjusted look at OSHA’s budget, funding has fluctuated between $519 million and $573 million over the past 10 years. President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget request for the agency essentially maintains funding within that range.
However, despite the overall budget remaining flat, whistleblower protection funding would increase. The Department of Labor’s summary of its FY 2015 budget highlights a request for an additional $4 million for whistleblower protections to help “protect workers against retaliation for reporting unsafe and unscrupulous practices.”
Whistleblower protection first received a line item in OSHA’s FY 2012 budget, with funding set at nearly $16 million. It has since increased to $17 million, but White suggests that figure is misleading. When adjusted for inflation, whistleblower protection funding has remained essentially flat during the past three fiscal years, making a $4 million increase to the agency’s program sorely needed, he said.
But whether or not that happens is anybody’s guess.
The Obama administration has made similar requests in previous years. For FY 2014, it requested a nearly $6 million bump for whistleblower protections; it received slightly more than a $1 million increase. The FY 2013 request asked for a nearly $5 million boost, but actually received a decrease due to budget quarrels between the political parties.
“It’s certainly frustrating to see the fact that this program doesn’t get the additional resources … needed to make it as effective as possible,” White said.
The additional funds could go toward more investigations and quicker processing of complaints. If funding remains flat, White warned that OSHA would not be able to investigate, respond to or process complaints in a timely manner – putting workers at additional risk of retaliation and possibly exposing them to unabated hazards.
OSHA is supposed to protect workers who report workplace law violations. But if the agency is cash-strapped and unable to do so, that could lead to workers thinking twice about doing the right thing.
The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.