Company Charged with Retaliation After Employees Participate in Inspection

By Roy Maurer November 26, 2013

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has ordered Hickory, N.C.-based Gaines Motor Lines, along with company officials Tim Gaines and Rick Tompkins, to reinstate three former truck drivers who were fired after reporting safety concerns, and pay the drivers over $1 million in back-pay wages, interest, compensatory and punitive damages.

According to OSHA’s Nov. 13, 2013, announcement, the former truck drivers were fired in violation of the whistle-blower protection provision of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act. Prior to their discharge, the employees had participated in a federal safety audit of the trucking company’s facility.

“Workers in this industry must be able to raise safety concerns with federal officials without fear of retaliation,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “Participating in an on-site inspection helps to ensure safer conditions for truck drivers and vehicles on the road. Employers undermining these protections through intimidation and adverse conduct will not be tolerated,” he said.

Gaines Motor Lines said that it is appealing the decision, calling it “factually flawed, based on unnamed sources and hearsay, depriving [Gaines] of the right of confrontation and being completely arbitrary and capricious.”

Terminated After Safety Audit

The whistle-blower complaint alleged that four employees (one has since died) were terminated for participating in an inspection audit of the company’s facility in Hickory, which was conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. From Feb. 28 through March 1, 2012, the four employees were interviewed on-site by the agency. The complaint specifies that the employees admitted log violations to federal auditors, that they were dispatched in violation of hours-of-service restrictions, and that company officials required them to alter their drivers’ logs. On March 8, following the audit and subsequent citations issued against Gaines Motor Lines, the workers suffered adverse retaliation by company officials, including termination, layoffs and removal of employee benefits, according to OSHA.

Two of the workers were fired, another was “intimidated,” and the fourth was reclassified as a part-time driver and lost medical insurance and other benefits, OSHA said.

Gaines responded in a statement that the company was engaged in a reduction in force due to economic conditions when the inspection took place. Three of the four drivers to whom the OSHA order applied were separated as part of that workforce reduction and had safety problems or other job performance issues, Gaines said.

Under the various whistle-blower provisions enacted by Congress, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to government agencies.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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