Employees are often afraid to report violations of the law or threats to public health and safety because they fear retaliation from their employer. Because an employee’s financial livelihood and usually health insurance depend on continued employment, fear of losing a job is pervasive. Laws that protect whistleblowers encourage employees to come forward with evidence that will make our world safer, healthier, and more just. Whistleblower and retaliation claims are often discussed interchangeably, but they are not the same.
Whistleblower complaints focus on conduct prohibited by a specific law, or conduct that may cause damage to public safety, waste tax dollars, or violate public trust in an honest, accountable government. Laws with whistleblower protections include, for example, environmental laws, taxpayer-funded programs, and government regulations of certain industries, such as nuclear power, trucking, and airlines. These laws protect employees who disclose information that the employee reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, gross mismanagement, abuse of power, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.
Retaliation complaints stem from laws governing the workplace which guarantee rights to individual workers, such as the right to be free from discrimination, to be paid minimum wage and overtime, and to join a union. These laws protect the rights of workers to enforce their personal legal rights under the law, and to support others who enforce their personal legal rights. If employers interfere with those rights in illegal ways, the worker can bring a clam for retaliation. Laws that protect workers, such as antidiscrimination laws, wage and hour laws, and health and safety laws, also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against someone who engages in legally protected conduct.
Although there are some variations, most whistleblower and anti-retaliation laws require that you prove these elements:
- You engaged in a protected activity, like reporting a violation of a law or testifying as a witness;
- Your employer knew or believed that you engaged in the protected activity;
- You suffered an adverse employment action, such as being terminated, demoted, denied overtime pay, denied a promotion, or denied your benefits;
- Your protected activity caused your employer to take the adverse employment action against you.