Employers can’t punish employees for reporting unsafe or illegal working conditions to state or federal agencies responsible for worker safety. The North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) makes it illegal for employers, for example, to fire an employee who reported hazards covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of North Carolina.
But until recently, it was unclear whether simply reporting problems to an internal auditor or another responsible party also was “protected activity.” A federal court has decided that REDA may cover internal reports.
Recent case: Thomas Jurrissen worked for Keystone Foods in Reidsville as a supervisor for the cleanup shift. The plant makes Chicken McNuggets for McDonald’s restaurants.
Jurrissen told an internal company auditor that he believed the metal safety guards attached to the blenders and mixers that processed the chicken meat into battered nuggets were unsafe and unclean. Jurrissen had raised similar concerns with his supervisors in the past, but claimed they had ignored him.
The next day, Jurrissen was fired. He claimed that both the HR professional who terminated him and his supervisor told him he should not have spoken to the auditor.
Jurrissen sued, alleging that he had been terminated for reporting health and safety concerns, and that his discussions with the internal investigator were the kinds of acts REDA was designed to encourage and protect. The company argued that employees have to report alleged problems to the state or federal agency in charge of employee safety to be protected.
The court agreed with Jurrissen. It said that even informal, internal complaints are covered. No formal complaint is required. (Jurrissen v. Keystone Foods, No. 1:08-CV-128, MD NC, 2008)