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Local government workers must first report problems to bosses

A ruling handed down by the 1st District Court of Appeal in late November has informed local government whistleblowers that they cannot be protected by anti-retaliation laws unless they tell their supervisors about their workplace complaints. The decision is likely to have a significant impact on employee rights, perhaps discouraging workers from revealing allegations against smaller government agencies that are acting unethically.

In contrast, state and federal government workers are protected by a 1992 law that allows them to directly report concerns to other state or federal agencies without fear of retribution.

The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by a worker at the Panama City Housing Authority who was fired in 2008. The worker reportedly sent a document to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that he was not receiving pay that was commensurate with his station. The maintenance worker was laid off in November 2008, about seven months after filing the complaint with the federal agency.

Courtroom documents show that the man thought he was fired because of the report to the HUD. He asked for protection under a whistleblower’s act. Justices at the Court of Appeal decided that the man should not receive the protection because he failed to address the problem with a local supervisor. Local government workers should seek help from their employer’s chief executive officer or other high-ranking official.

Essentially, this decision requires employees to reveal potentially unethical actions to their bosses before consulting state or federal officials for help. This could stop many workers from reporting workplace violations, largely because they might fear retribution or inaction from their supervisors.

The decision appears to argue that the worker should first present the information to their supervisor and then give the information to state or federal workers if the problem persists. Employees should remember to keep reliable documentation throughout this process to ensure credibility and prove their case if their allegations are contested in court.

Source: Sunshine State News, “Local whistleblowers must tell local bosses,” Michael Peltier, Nov. 29, 2012.