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A U.S. district court has awarded a school employee $175,000 in back wages and punitive damages in a whistle-blower lawsuit.
A trial by an eight-member jury in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, determined that Renaissance Arts and Education Inc. (doing business as Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto) and its principal, Bill Jones, violated the whistle-blower-protection provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act when the charter school terminated David Shack after he warned about safety hazards.
The school has filed an appeal.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sued the school in March 2012 for its wrongful termination of Shack, who warned the school that there were electrical safety violations in the school’s theater.
“This is a groundbreaking decision made by the people against the unlawful termination, with malice, of an employee for raising concerns about a potential electrical-fire hazard in the large theater,” said Teresa A. Harrison, OSHA’s acting regional administrator in Atlanta. “The department is pleased with the jury’s verdict and hopes that this decision reminds employers that America’s workers have the right to raise safety concerns in the workplace without fear of retaliation.”
Shack submitted a letter to his direct supervisor on June 20, 2009, in which he stated that improperly placed extension cords above the theater’s sprinkler system posed a fire hazard. When the school did not respond, he filed a complaint with the Manatee County School Board and OSHA on July 10. He was terminated July 30.
On Aug. 4, OSHA performed a safety inspection and cited the school for safety violations related to Shack’s expressed concerns.
“You always hear people ask, ‘Why didn’t you say or do something?’ when something is found,” Shack told The Bradenton Times. “In this case, I did do something. I wasn’t satisfied with the way it was handled, so I sent it to OSHA and OSHA supported my concerns.”
OSHA enforces the whistle-blower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of securities, trucking, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, rail, maritime, health care, consumer-product and food-safety laws.
Under the whistle-blower provisions that Congress enacted, an employer is prohibited from retaliating against those who raise protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government.
Workers who believe they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
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