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Beware retaliation against whistle-blowers

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees who sue for alleged retaliation after reporting safety problems in the workplace have a new and powerful ally: the Cali­for­nia Labor Commissioner’s office, also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE).

The DLSE recently filed suit on behalf of two workers who were alleged were fired in retaliation for whistle-blowing.

Recent case: Cali­­for­­nia Labor Commissioner Julie Su sued Siemens, claiming that two former employees of the multination corporation had been fired in retaliation for making safety-related complaints. Su brought the case for retaliatory termination under Section 6310 of the Cali­­for­­nia Labor Code.

The men had been employed as part of the crew installing a baggage conveyor system at San Francisco International Airport. They had repeatedly complained to their supervisors that forklifts were being operated without the appropriate training. Soon after, they were terminated for a variety of reasons.

When the lawsuit was filed, Siemens argued that because all employees were required to report safety violations, these workers could not sue under existing case law. One case in particular was the basis for the claim: An elevator inspector refused to put his signature on a certification for a customer’s elevator and was subsequently fired. Because it was his job to certify the elevator and because the elevator was not technically his workplace, he had not engaged in so-called protected activity under the Cali­­for­­nia Labor Code.

But the court nixed that de­fense in this case. It reasoned that because the two workers didn’t have jobs directly related to the alleged safety violations (i.e., their job wasn’t to certify fork lift training) they weren’t similarly situated to the elevator safety inspector.

Plus, in this case, the safety complaints were about their workplaces, not someone else’s workplace. The case will proceed. (Su v. Siemens, No. 12-cv-03743, ND CA, 2014)

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