What Is a Whistleblower?
A “whistleblower” is an employee who reports – or blows the whistle on – an employer after finding evidence of abuse of power, illegal or unethical practices, fraud, gross waste, mismanagement, or any dangers to public health or safety. Whistleblowers take it upon themselves to come forward with information that could expose a person or company for wrongdoing, often at a personal and/or professional risk. Whistleblowers play important roles in holding business owners and the government accountable for their actions.
No law dictates that employees must report illegal or unethical behavior within a company. Whistleblowers come forward of their own volition. It is their desire to oppose wrongful activities and shed light on unsavory business practices that drives their decision to come forward with information. Whistleblowers are courageous defenders of what is right, and deserve protection. Luckily, federal laws exist to prevent negative actions and retaliation against employees who blow the whistle on illicit activities.
If you’ve reached this page in search of answers for your particular whistleblowing case, contact our office today to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys.
How Are Whistleblowers Protected?
Whistleblowers do not need to put up with wrongful termination or other adverse actions against them because of their courage in coming forward about misconduct. If an employer tries to fire, demote, or otherwise penalize the employee who issued the report, that employer could face repercussions – on top of having to give the employee his/her job back. Numerous protections are in place to protect whistleblowers from negative consequences, as long as the person coming forward follows the rules.
These protections are as follows:
- The False Claims Act (FCA). Lawmakers passed the False Claims Act in 1863, in response to war-related fraud and waste. The original act contained a qui tam provision that encouraged people to file lawsuits against anyone defrauding the government. The provision enacted protections over these so-called whistleblowers and offered a reward for coming forward: a percentage of what the government recovered as a result. It was the first version of any kind of whistleblower protection law.
- Whistleblower Protection Act. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal employees from retaliation when they bring forward information to eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse within the government. It strengthened and improved protections against adverse employment actions for government employees. Although lawmakers have made amendments to this act over the years, its general protections remain the same.
- Protection for exposing classified information. Whistleblowing may require divulging company and trade secrets, or classified information. This is generally acceptable, and the employee will still benefit from certain protections. If Congress or an Executive Order classifies the information, however, the whistleblower will only have legal protection if he/she makes the report through secure and designated channels.
- OSHA whistleblower protection. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has protections that apply to private employers, as well as specific laws that may relate to the underlying violation the whistleblower discovered. You may file a complaint with OSHA if you believe you’re the victim of whistleblower retaliation. OSHA will investigate the case and may issue remedies for your situation.
- Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act is a federal law that describes the Environmental Protection Agency’s responsibilities for protecting the country’s air quality and ozone. It comes with whistleblower protections through OSHA that prohibit discrimination or job termination because of whistleblowing regarding clean air rule violations. Similar protections exist for employees who come forward about violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
- Sarbanes-Oxley Act. This 2002 act protects corporate whistleblowers from retaliation. It gives legal remedies to employees who face wrongful termination, as well as establishes “audit committees” at publicly traded corporations. Audit committees must enact whistleblower procedures and protections. This act also imposes new ethical standards for Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) lawyers to blow the whistle on certain clients, and criminalizes retaliation against whistleblowers who go to the police about possible federal offenses.
- Florida Statutes Section 112.3187. The state offers whistleblower protections on top of federal ones. The Florida “Whistleblower’s Act” prevents adverse actions against employees for disclosing certain information, as well as gives remedies and relief options for whistleblowers in the state. Employees in Florida can file lawsuits for back pay, benefits, lost wages, and other damages if they face whistleblower retaliation. State agency employees also have these protections, but must file complaints differently.
Keep in mind the whistleblower’s claim does not have to be true for him or her to qualify for the various federal and state protections available. As long as the whistleblower made his/her claim in the good faith belief that it was true, protections apply. The moment you suspect a connection between an adverse employment action and reporting your employer for misconduct or a rule violation, contact our Tampa attorneys.
How to Blow the Whistle in Florida
If you’re considering blowing the whistle on people or practices at work, explore the claims process before starting. First, recognize the possible risks to your livelihood and the protection you will receive under federal and state law. Then, find out how to file your complaint through the proper venues to unearth illegal practices while protecting your rights as a whistleblower.
Take the following steps to report misconduct at your work:
- Don’t tell others. Keep your thoughts and beliefs to yourself, until you can speak directly with a federal agency. Don’t tell coworkers what you suspect or bring it up to the boss. Protect yourself from retaliation and even potential harm by going straight to the right agency with your complaint.
- File a safety and health complaint with OSHA. Employees have the right to file a complaint and request a professional inspection of their workplace if they suspect a health or safety code violation. File your complaint as soon as possible, because OSHA can only give citations for violations that occurred within the past six months. You may file online, mail the OSHA complaint form to a local office, or discuss your complaint via phone.
- File a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. If the violation in question has to do with employment rights, wage/hour laws, discrimination, or harassment in the workplace, take your complaint to the EEOC. Report your complaint, receive counseling through an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor, then file your formal complaint within 15 days of your meeting.
- Go through mediation. Once the right federal agency receives your complaint, it may call for mediation. Mediation is a process in which an unbiased third-party judge resolves a dispute between employers and employees. You may have an attorney representing you during mediation if you wish. If mediation is unsuccessful, a full investigation will follow, leading to a determination of whether the employer has committed the violation in question.
- Protect yourself from retaliation. During, and after, the process of blowing the whistle on your employer, protect yourself from adverse employment actions. Your employer may try to punish you for filing the claim days, weeks, or even months later. Although employers in Florida don’t need a reason to fire employees, they cannot lawfully base employment decisions on whistleblower activities. This is illegal retaliation.
If after filing your complaint your employer gets wind of your actions and uses it as a reason to fire you, cut your pay, give you worse shifts, or otherwise reprimand you, you may have grounds for a retaliation claim in Florida. Discuss your full case with a Florida employment attorney from Florin Gray Bouzas Owens, LLC. We can help you fight for restitution if an employer has infringed on your rights and protections as a whistleblower. Contact our office today to schedule your free initial consultation.
Examples of “Whistleblowing” at Work
“Blowing the whistle” on an employer’s illegal conduct means disclosing information to authorities or the public about the illegal actions of the employer, corporation, or government body. This definition can apply to many different workplace scenarios, from a worker helping the government with an investigation to anonymously phoning in a white-collar crime like embezzlement. Any of the following situations could end in an employee blowing the whistle on suspicious, wrongful, or illegal activity:
- Health or safety violations
- Breaking federal hours-of-service regulations
- Fraudulent activities connected to stocks and bonds
- Defrauding the U.S. government
- Tax fraud
- Violations of the Environmental Protection Agency regulations
- Workplace harassment or discrimination
It is within every U.S. employee’s rights to report an employer who engages in any action or behavior that is against the law or unethical. If an employee suspects something is amiss, he or she should go directly to the federal government to report the crime. An employee can file a report or complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Should the employee then face adverse actions at work, such as a demotion or work termination, he or she might be the victim of whistleblower retaliation.
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