BOSTON – The National Railroad Passenger Corp., better known as Amtrak, retaliated against a supervisory special agent in its inspector general’s office when he raised concerns about railroad safety, fraud and abuse involving an Amtrak contractor and when he supported a fellow agent’s safety concerns during an internal investigation, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found.
In early to mid-2010, the agent was investigating an Amtrak contractor that had been convicted in a New York state court for fraud in examining and testing concrete at building projects in the New York City area. This Amtrak contractor had performed testing on certain Amtrak tunnel projects. Strongly believing it was necessary for safety and security reasons, the agent raised safety concerns regarding work performed by this contractor on Amtrak projects.
Then, in October 2010, the agent gave Amtrak’s Dispute Resolution Office information and provided support for a fellow employee who had received a letter of reprimand after he raised safety concerns in a separate matter. The following month, the agent received his first-ever negative performance review. In March 2011, Amtrak notified him that – as a part of an overall reorganization – his position was being eliminated. In the course of the next few months, the agent applied for other positions, but was told that he lacked the required law enforcement training, despite a 40-year law enforcement career that included equivalent training. In June 2011, Amtrak notified the agent that he would be terminated due to his not being placed in a new position.
The terminated agent later filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. After concluding its investigation, the agency determined that the complainant engaged in protected Federal Railroad Safety Act activities when he raised concerns about safety issues related to work conducted by the Amtrak contractor and when he expressed his support of his fellow agent’s safety complaints. OSHA also found these protected activities contributed as factors in his termination by Amtrak.
“In this case, an employee was terminated for pursuing and reporting safety concerns. The employer’s retaliation is unacceptable and illegal. Federal law gives rail carrier employees the right to raise safety, health and security concerns with their supervisors without fear of retaliation. When retaliation occurs, it can have a chilling effect on employees and create a climate of silence where employees’ fear to speak up masks conditions that could impact their health and well-being, and that of their customers,” said Jeffrey Erskine, OSHA’s acting New England regional administrator.
OSHA has issued a notice of findings to Amtrak ordering it to take the following corrective actions:
Reinstate the employee to his former or a similar position with all rights, seniority and benefits he would have received had he not been discharged.
Pay him a total of $892,551, which is comprised of $723,332 in back wages plus $34,218 in interest; $100,000 in punitive damages; $35,000 in compensatory damages; plus reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.
Expunge from Amtrak’s records all references related to his discharge and exercise of his FRSA rights; make no adverse statements concerning his employment at Amtrak; and not retaliate or discriminate against him in any manner.
Post a notice to all railroad employees about their FRSA rights.
The employee and Amtrak each have 30 days from receipt of OSHA’s findings to file objections and request a hearing before the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the FRSA and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, worker safety, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.
Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government. Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor to request an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.
BNSF Railway to pay more than $147K in back wages, damages to former employee
DENVER – An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found that BNSF Railway Company violated federal law when it terminated a track inspector for insubordination after the employee reported railroad track defects to management.
OSHA has ordered BNSF to pay more than $147,000 in back wages and damages and take other corrective actions. Agency investigators determined the company retaliated against the former employee in violation of the Federal Railroad Safety Act. A Berkshire Hathaway company, BNSF is an international railroad operator headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. It employs more than 42,000 employees.
“BNSF employees have the right to protect their safety and that of other employees and the public without fear of retaliation by their employer,” said Gregory Baxter, regional OSHA administrator in Denver. “Our investigation and our actions on this worker’s behalf underscores the agency’s commitment to take vigorous action to protect workers’ rights.”
The company and the former employee may file objections or request a hearing, within 30 days of receipt of the agency’s order, before the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the CPSIA and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.
Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor. More information is available online at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/index.html.
Earlier last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a final rule covering railroad whistleblower cases and employer retaliation. The rule serves to clarify whistleblower protections already in place and establishes procedures and time frames for handling employee retaliation complaints covered under the National Transit Systems Security Act (NTSSA) and the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA).
The final rule stipulates and clarifies the following:
Prompt medical treatment violations or interference with medical treatment cases will be handled procedurally the same way as all other whistleblower cases.
A refusal to allow an employee to return to work, which is not based on standards recorded in the railroad’s official policies, not uniformly applied or not medically reasonable, can be offered to demonstrate that the refusal is not a legitimate safety concern, but rather motivated by retaliatory intent.
The time limit to file a whistleblower complaint is 180 days after the railroad’s decision has been made and communicated to the employee. To clarify this is when the employee is aware or should be aware of the decision, not when the employee learns of the retaliatory nature of the action.
A contributing factor for a retaliatory action is that the adverse action must take place within a temporal time of the protected activity, or at the first opportunity available to the retaliating manager. That can be a number of years between the protected activity and the retaliatory actions in situations where the manager did not have the opportunity to retaliate until a later time.
Interest on awarded back pay will be computed by compounding daily IRS interest rates for the underpayment of taxes, which is currently the Federal short-term rate plus three percent.
Front pay is a potential remedy where reinstatement is not possible because of the unacceptable working relationship, the position has been abolished or the employee is medically unable to work because of severe depression caused by the retaliation.
OSHA has the authority to grant injunctive relief such as expunging certain personnel files, not applying a policy to an employee, posting a notice regarding a whistleblower result, training for managers, etc.
Hearsay evidence is admissible.
An employee filing a complaint in district court must give notice to OSHA within seven days after filing the complaint.
An employee may file both a whistleblower and a FELA complaint at the same time. If violations of other laws are involved, employees may also file those complaints at the same time.
NTSSA establishes protections against retaliation for public transportation agency employees who engage in whistleblowing activities related to public transportation safety or security. FRSA provides protections against retaliation for railroad carrier employees who report a work-related injury or engage in other whistleblowing activities related to railroad safety or security. These protections extend to employees of contractors and subcontractors who do work for public transportation agencies and railroad carriers.
Both provisions were enacted by the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. FRSA was amended in 2008 to prohibit railroad carriers from denying, delaying or interfering with employees’ medical or first aid treatment. The FRSA amendments also require that injured employees be promptly transported to the nearest hospital upon request.
“Railroad workers have the right to report injuries and to follow their doctor’s treatment plans for injuries sustained in the course of their employment without fearing that they will be retaliated against,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Railroad and public transit agency workers must never be silenced by the threat of losing their job when their safety or the safety of the public is at stake.”
In 2010, OSHA published an interim final rule and requested public comments. The final rule responds to the comments, incorporates recent case law under the statutes and updates the rules to improve both employees’ and employers’ access to information about the case during OSHA’s investigation and their ability to participate in OSHA’s investigation.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, commercial motor vehicle, airline, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, rail, maritime, health care, workplace safety and health, and consumer product safety laws and regulations. For more information, please visit www.whistleblowers.gov.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit www.osha.gov.
The UTU and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA), along with two other rail labor organizations, have filed a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), alleging BNSF has expanded its harassment and intimidation of injured workers to include the targeting of witnesses.
In recent months, OSHA has imposed millions of dollars in sanctions against railroads – including BNSF – for violating federal laws that provide protections for injured rail workers and those reporting safety violations.
The UTU and the SMWIA – now combined as the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) — along with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — filed a complaint with OSHA July 31 alleging that BNSF officials in Montana are attempting “to interfere with an OSHA investigation into possible violations of the Federal Rail Safety Act” as reported by BNSF employees.
BNSF has written to possible witnesses, asking if they would “object” to having a BNSF representative present during their interview by OSHA investigators.
“Plainly,” states the rail organizations’ complaint, “any employee receiving a communication like this, however innocently couched from the company, will be intimidated by the knowledge that the company is looking over his/her shoulder insofar as providing information to OSHA is concerned.”
The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 2007 extended whistleblower protection to employees retaliated against for reporting injuries, illnesses or safety concerns.
The complaint filed with OSHA says, “We do not know how BNSF was able to identify these employees as witnesses,” as OSHA previously rejected a BNSF demand that OSHA disclose to BNSF the names of employee witnesses. OSHA told BNSF that “such requests are wholly inappropriate and that OSHA will not comply with them.”
OSHA previously has made clear that “the safety of railroad employees depends on workers’ ability to report injuries, incidents and hazards without fear of retaliation.”
The rail labor organizations urged OSHA to “immediately contact BNSF and sternly rebuke the carrier for this inappropriate conduct. The confidentiality protections in the Federal Railroad Safety Act’s governing regulations and OSHA’s Whistleblower Investigations Manual require nothing less.”
Additionally, the rail organizations cited a June 1 OSHA letter to BNSF stating that “OSHA assumes that BNSF [legal] counsel would be well aware of the conflict of interest that would inevitably arise if BNSF’s attorney were to represent both the corporation and non-managerial employees in a whistleblower case.” The complaint says, “Apparently, BNSF did not see fit to explain that conflict of interest when approaching these employees and offering to be their ‘liaison’ with OSHA.
“No railroad employee [should be] intimidated from filing a complaint initiating an OSHA investigation or from participating in such an investigation, or in any way retaliated against by his/her employer for doing so,” said the rail organizations in their complaint.
Between 2007 and 2012, OSHA received more than 900 whistleblower complaints under the Federal Rail Safety Act.
BNSF has a history of attempting to violate federal laws protecting workers. In March, following a complaint by the UTU and the SMWIA to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), BNSF rescinded a proposed new rule that would have required its employees to provide highly personal medical information.
The UTU and the SMWIA told the EEOC that the BNSF would be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act and other federal statutes by requiring employees provide the railroad with doctor’s notes, diagnostic test results and hospital discharge summaries that could disclose non-workplace injuries and illnesses. BNSF rescinded the proposed new rule prior to EEOC action.
NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — A Union Pacific machinist here was ordered rehired with back pay in a ruling by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) that found Union Pacific violated the worker’s rights under the Federal Rail Safety Act of 2007.
OSHA ruled that in firing the machinist, after he had reported a work-related injury, Union Pacific had improperly retaliated against him.
The railroad also was ordered to post a workplace notice admitting it was found to have retaliated against an employee for reporting a work-related injury.
In December 2010, OSHA ordered a UTU member employed by BNSF to be reinstated with back pay after finding BNSF guilty of improper retaliation after the worker filed an injury report with the Federal Railroad Administration.
The Federal Rail Safety Act of 2007 protects rail workers from retaliation and threats of retaliation when they report injuries, report that a carrier violated safety laws or regulations, or if the employee refuses to work under certain unsafe conditions or refuses to authorize the use of any safety 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 OSHA, as it was against UP and BNSF.
Relief may include reinstatement with the same seniority and benefits, back pay 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 UTU designated legal counsel is available at www.utu.org, or may be obtained from local or general committee officers or state legislative directors.
To view a more detailed OSHA fact sheet, click on the following link:
If a congressionally ordered railroad risk reduction program is to be effective, the Federal Railroad Administration must include railroad employees and their labor unions in the process of evaluating and managing the program.
That is the message seven rail labor organizations sent to the FRA Feb. 8 in response to an earlier FRA notice of proposed rulemaking implementing a risk reduction program.
The program was ordered by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA). Its purpose is to reduce the consequences and rates of railroad accidents, incidents, injuries and fatalities.
The UTU was joined by the American Train Dispatchers Association, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and Transport Workers Union in commenting to the FRA.
Congress specifically concluded that having railroads “unilaterally decide issues of safety would not be in the public interest,” the UTU and the other labor organizations told the FRA. Yet, the notice of proposed rulemaking “undermines” that congressional intent.
To ensure an effective risk reduction program, the FRA must solicit rail labor input and participation, said the labor organizations. Specific to train and engine workers, such participation must include:
Risks posed by joint operations, including passenger and commuter trains.
National Transportation Safety Board recommendations.
Disclosure of all carrier bonus, incentive and compensation systems that reward management employees for meeting or exceeding safety related goals, targets, benchmarks or milestones.
Disclosure of policies and data related to waiver and discipline practices that in any way discourage accurate reporting of accidents, incidents, injuries or close calls.
The labor organizations also asked the FRA to develop historical data on the following:
Number of disciplinary charges filed for rule violations.
Number of whistle-blower cases filed by employees.
Number of employee dismissals.
Number of FRA reportable injuries.
Number of meet and confer sessions related to safety.
Safety records of regional and shortline railroads.
Retaliation, intimidation and overall culture, attitude and policy toward safety reporting by employees.
Safety incentive programs and policies that create peer pressure within work groups not to report injuries in order to preserve incentive prizes.
A carrier’s past response to risk, hazards, defects, near misses and safety complaints reported by employees.
The effectiveness of operating rules and practices in risk reduction.
The effectiveness of safety and training programs.
Additionally, the labor organizations asked the FRA to “pay particular attention to railroads that regularly intimidate employees to cut corners [and] hold formal hearings and discipline employees whenever accidents or injuries are reported.”
The process for evaluating and managing a risk reduction program must also include direct employee input, said the labor organizations. “There is no substitute for interviewing employees actually doing the work,” and such interviews should mask the identity of employees to ensure “they may speak freely.”
Of special importance to train and engine workers is the implementation of a fatigue management plan. “A human being cannot possibly be rested to work safely unless that human being knows when they must report for service,” said the labor organizations. “Often, safety critical employees are forced to report for service even when fatigued, or [they] face disciplinary hearings and loss of employment.
“We encourage the FRA to take immediate action to require 10 hours of advance notification for all operating employees not otherwise on assignments with defined start times,” said the labor organizations.
To read the comments of the seven labor organizations, click here.
To read the FRA’s earlier notice of proposed rulemaking, click on the following link: