The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ordered AirTran Airways (ATA) to reinstate a pilot the company has fired in 2007 for reporting multiple mechanical concerns. OSHA is also requiring ATA to pay its former employee over $1 million in back wages, plus interest and compensatory damages. Investigators working through OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that the pilot was terminated as an act of retaliation, which violates the whistleblower provision of AIR21 (the Ford Aviation Investment & Reform Act for the 21st Century). The U.S. Department of Labor does not release names of employees involved in whistleblower complaints
Following this ruling, OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels released this statement:
“Airline workers must be free to raise safety and security concerns, and companies that diminish those rights through intimidation or retaliation must be held accountable. Airline safety is of vital importance, not only to the workers, but to the millions of Americans who use our airways.”
Upon termination from flight status in August of 2007, the pilot alleged that AirTran Airways – a subsidiary of Southwest Airlines – had fired him as an act of retaliation for his numerous mechanical malfunction reports, or PIREPS. According to the pilot, ATA held only a “faux” internal investigation in response to the mechanical malfunction reports; that hearing lasted a mere 17 minutes. A week after the hearing, ATA fired the pilot, claiming that he failed to “satisfactorily” answer a question regarding the spike in his malfunction reports. OSHA determined that the pilot did not, in fact, refuse to answer any questions during the hearing; furthermore, the answers were entirely appropriate to the queries, and the termination was purely retaliatory.
Michaels expanded on his press release by noting that “retaliating against a pilot for reporting mechanical malfunctions is not consistent with a company that values the safety of its workers and customers. Whistleblower laws are designed to protect workers’ rights to speak out when they have safety concerns, and the Labor Department will vigilantly protect and defend those fundamental rights.”
At this point in the process, either party—plaintiff or defendant—can file an appeal with the Office of Administrative Law Judges, but such an appeal will not stay the preliminary reinstatement order.
OSHA’s website provides the following information on whistleblower protections:
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provision of AIR21, as well as 20 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, workplace health and safety, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, rail, maritime, health care, consumer product and food safety laws.
Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.
To ask questions, obtain compliance assistance, file a complaint, or report workplace hospitalizations, fatalities or situations posing imminent danger to workers, the public should call OSHA’s toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742), the agency’s Atlanta Regional Office at 678-237-0400 or its Tampa Area Office at 813-626-1177.
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.