It can be frightening to speak out when doing so could put your job at risk. Fortunately, both state and federal law protect whistleblowers in a number of ways.
The policy behind whistleblower laws is relatively simple. The government wants to encourage workers to uphold the law even when doing so puts them at odds with their employers, so it gives workers an incentive to speak up, and it gives employers a disincentive to keep them from retaliating against workers who exercise their legal rights.
Reporting safety violations
One relatively scenario in which whistleblower protection laws are important involves safety violations.
For example, imagine employee Sandy works for employer Jim at a warehouse. Sandy’s job requires her to walk between tall stacks of heavy goods. She notices that the stacks are not secured safely and fears that they could fall over and hurt someone. She reports her concerns to Jim, but he brushes her off. He says the warehouse is too busy to take the time to stack the goods properly, and so she should just forget about it.
Sandy is still concerned that unsafe conditions at the warehouse are going to lead to someone getting hurt, so she files a report with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Jim finds out about Sandy’s report, gets mad and fires her.
This is where whistleblower protection laws come in. Under state and federal laws, Jim has wrongfully retaliated against Sandy for exercising her legal right to report unsafe working conditions. She can now rely on whistleblower protections to file a lawsuit against Jim for wrongful termination.
Varying levels of protection
Whistleblower laws provide different levels of protection depending on the circumstances. They apply to workers in both the public and private sectors, but not equally.
Kentucky law recognizes that most private sector employees can be fired for any reason, so long as the reason is not unlawful discrimination, or some other reason specifically prohibited under the law. With this background in place, private-sector employees have a harder time than public-sector employees when they need to prove their employer illegally retaliated against them. Kentucky’s Whistleblower Protection Act provides protections to workers in the private sector in limited circumstances, such as after they are called on to testify against their employer in court.
It’s important to note that there are other laws that protect private-sector whistleblowers in some circumstances. For instance, Kentucky has laws specifically protecting whistleblowers who report safety violations or who file a workers’ compensation claim. Other laws protect employees who report wage violations or who assist in enforcing anti-discrimination laws. There are much stronger protections for employees in the public sector, meaning employees who work for government agencies.
Whistleblowers need help
Even with these protections available, workers often feel too intimidated by their bosses to speak up. They may fear that they will lose their jobs or face other problems at work.
It is a good idea for workers to speak to an employment law attorney as early in the process as they can. A good lawyer can advise workers about their rights and options, and tell them how to protect themselves, their jobs, their co-workers and their greater community.