In order to keep our country safer from terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security has an ongoing campaign called, "If you see something, say something." Encouraging Americans to report suspicious activities that could lead to widespread destruction makes good sense and could save lives.
In the workplace, when employees see egregious safety lapses or are forced to adhere to policies that skirt the law, if they report these instances, e.g., become whistleblowers, they often are ostracized by management and/or coworkers, subjected to retaliation and may even lose their jobs.
Seeking protection under the law
The state of California has whistleblower laws in place that are designed to protect workers from the above types of retaliatory actions after they reported their companies for breaching the public trust or violating the law.
To give just one example of how this can play out, let's suppose that you are an employee of a waste disposal company. Your job as a dispatcher allows you access to the GPS systems on the waste removal trucks. You notice when tracking the routes of the trucks that several drivers have been illegally dumping waste into a local waterway instead of at the local hazardous waste disposal site.
You bring this to your supervisor's attention, but your concerns are dismissed. Concerned, you make a call to the relevant agency and let them know what you have discovered. Suddenly, your hours are cut almost in half, and you are demoted to a position that pays less. You start getting threatening calls and think that you have been followed home a few times. You're scared and worried that your safety and that of your family could be in jeopardy.
What are your options?
You could seek protection as a whistleblower and file a lawsuit against your employer. In California, the whistleblower laws that are in place protect both private and public employees, which is not the case in all states.
Because you have also faced retaliation for your whistleblowing actions, those involved in the retaliatory acts could face criminal charges.
Since 2014, the state's whistleblower law expanded and got even tougher. Now, the liability extends even past the company to include those who act at the behest of the company, e.g., third-party contractors. These protections additionally include whistleblowers who come forth with violations even when these disclosures are unrelated to their job descriptions.
A final provision of the strengthened law now encompasses reporting suspected violations internally to management and supervisors within the company as well as externally to "any public body" tasked with investigating the breach or conducting hearings on the matter.
Who gets protection?
Under Section 1102.5 of the California Labor Code, protected employees consist of anyone working for a public or private employer. That covers city, state and county workers, including charter city employees and the employees of universities, colleges, school districts, public and municipal corporations and political subdivisions.
Compensation may be available
California's whistleblowers may also be eligible for compensation under the law. Filing a claim for damages from the retaliation could bring you:
- Reinstatement to your former position and pay rate
- Payment of back wages lost
- Additional damages for besmirching your reputation (if that occurred)
If you plan on blowing the whistle on illegal activities at your place of employment, it's best to explore all of your legal options before acting.