Employee wins settlement after time card woes

A Florida worker at a sports facility won a large settlement from a wrongful termination suit this month. The man, who served as a card dealer in the facility’s poker room, had been fired after he incorrectly recorded his hours worked, even though his employer did not permit him access to the official time clock. The man has recovered $33,700 in damages in connection with the wrongful termination case, which could increase over time.

The federal lawsuit was filed in the summer of 2011 after the man said he was wrongfully fired. The man said that his swipe badge, used to clock in and out of work, broke several months before that time. His employer and supervisors refused to issue him a new badge, so he began to record his hours manually on a sheet next to the time clock. His supervisors and the company’s payroll clerk continued to harass him about putting his hours in the computerized system, even though he was unable to do so without the appropriate equipment.

In February 2011, company administrators told the man they would stop paying him if he did not log his time electronically. The man told his employers that it was illegal to refuse to pay a worker, and he would take legal action if the company did not provide him with the earned money. Shortly thereafter, the man was fired.

Courtroom documents allege that the man’s termination was directly caused by his complaints to management about not getting paid. Representatives for the company maintain that they never violated the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, yet the employer was also accused under Florida’s whistleblower protection law, legislation that protects people who report wrongdoing on the job.

In this case, the man recovered damages for lost wages. He may also have obtained financial compensation for emotional distress, which almost certainly occurred after the man lost his job. When dealing with a sluggish economy, losing employment is difficult — especially if a person is unfairly terminated. This is why it’s important for employees to understand their rights under state and federal law.

Source: Ocala Star-Banner, “Card room worker wins $33,700 verdict against Second Chance Jai-Alai,” Vishal Persaud, Feb. 14, 2013

Florida marine firm sued for violating employee rights

Whistleblowers are protected by state and federal statutes. Whistleblowers are generally thought of as individuals who report unethical behavior, but people who report safety violations are also owed certain employee rights. A firm in Florida has come under fire for terminating one of its workers because that person complained about unsafe working conditions, along with other employer violations. The employee is seeking compensation for back wages with interest, along with compensatory and punitive damages in connection with the case.

Officials report that the employee had complained to a work supervisor at Duane Thomas Marine Construction because the man was making inappropriate sexual comments, physically threatening employees and creating a hostile work environment. The employee’s paycheck was withheld because the supervisor wanted to seek vengeance for the complaints, according to information in courtroom documents.

The employee was subjected to the alleged abuse for nearly two years, with the incidents occurring between 2009 and 2011. The employee reported the abuse in February 2011, and the supervisor was notified of the complaint in mid-March. The employee was terminated less than a week later, when he found that his remote-access computer passwords had been changed without his knowledge or consent.

Workplace violence is considered a safety concern under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, according to government officials. As a result, OSHA became involved in the whistleblower protection in this case. OSHA administrators say that all employees have the right to raise concerns about dangerous workplace violence without fear of losing their jobs.

Employees who have been discriminated against for reporting unacceptable conduct should consider hiring legal advisers. They should also report the incidents to government agencies, including OSHA. You may be entitled to financial compensation and reinstatement into your previous position at work. Your employer may face significant fines and penalties from the government, along with additional oversight to prevent similar problems for other workers in the future.

Source: OSHA, “US Department of Labor sues Duane Thomas Marine Construction in Florida for firing employee who reported workplace violence,” Michael D’Aquino, Feb. 6, 2013

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.

Worker fired for complaining about workplace rodents vindicated

A Florida worker whose employer fired him for complaining about workplace rodents and rodent droppings has been vindicated in a lawsuit filed on his behalf by the U.S. Department of Labor. A judge upheld employee rights to complain about unsafe or unhealthy workplace conditions, and not to be fired in retaliation for being a whistleblower.

The lawsuit targeted the owners of Aquatech Technologies Inc., which the employee worked for. It resulted in the judge issuing an injunction against the defendants engaging in any further violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which outlaws such retaliation. The former employee was also awarded $27,072 in lost back wages, $6,700 in expenses, and $414 in interest, for a total award of $34,186.

After the employee told the company about seeing rodents infesting the office and finding rodent droppings lying around, the employer took some steps, such as placing a few traps. This, however, did not really remedy the situation. When the employee continued to complain, the employer then took the position that no such problem existed.

Frustrated with this inaction, the employee then filed a complaint with OSHA. As soon as OSHA told the employer that it was in receipt of the complaint, the employee was shown the door without warning.

That prompted the fired worker to pursue a claim as a whistleblower through OSHA, resulting in an investigation which found merit to the claim, and the subsequent lawsuit. The result shows that employees who stand up for the right of themselves and their co-workers to have a safe and healthy workplace have some protection against employers who want them to continue to work in filthy or dangerous conditions in violation of the law.

Source: WorkersCompensation.com, “OSHA wins lawsuit against employer for firing whistleblower who complained of rodents,” Oct. 11, 2012.