Imagine you work in a restaurant kitchen. You detect a gas leak and report it to your supervisor, who does nothing. When you call 911, the Fire Department finds the gas leak and closes the place for the night. And instead of a raise or praise for potentially saving lives, you get … fired.
This is what happened at a McDonald’s in Lyons last year. The case demonstrates many aspects of today’s workplaces: the absence of job protections for low-wage workers; the capriciousness with which an employee’s livelihood can be whisked away; the importance of a strong labor movement; and the critical role of protective statutes and muscular enforcement of labor laws.
But the case also exemplifies something fundamental that is missing from the current debate about today’s workplace: the extent to which labor rights affect more than just employees. Workers’ ability to speak out without fear of retaliation creates a safer society for everyone.
For example, remember the terrible outbreak of tainted peanut butter in 2009, which killed nine people and sickened hundreds? According to news reports, minimum-wage employees at the Georgia-based Peanut Butter Corp. of America said that when they learned federal investigators were coming, they were told not to answer questions.
And in 2010, the New York Times reported that a confidential survey of workers on the Deepwater Horizon in the weeks before the oil rig exploded in the Gulf Coast showed that many workers were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems. Only about half of the workers interviewed said they felt they could report actions leading to a potentially risky situation without reprisal.
Sometimes, workers take a stand for public safety and face retaliation. In January, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration ordered a trucking company in the state of Washington to stop retaliating against truck drivers who refused to work when they were too sick or fatigued to drive safely. One driver notified the company that he couldn’t drive because he was sick and taking narcotic prescription drugs—in other words, perilously unable to drive. For this responsible stance, he was suspended without pay and then fired.
And just last month, the city of Boca Raton, Fla., settled a case based on alleged retaliation against a utility worker who pointed out threats to the safety of Boca Raton’s water system.
Workers’ rights and public safety are inextricably intertwined. When workers cannot speak up, the potential consequences are dire: tainted food, unsafe water, harm to the environment, hazardous roads, gas leaks that are ignored.
State and federal laws do provide some protection for workers who report violations and unsafe conditions. In the case of the McDonald’s worker who reported the gas leak, our office got involved. Because the employee did not want to be reinstated, we obtained a year and half of “front pay” for him in lieu of reinstatement; as a part-time minimum-wage worker, even a year and a half of front pay totaled just $10,000.
Laws prohibiting retaliation could certainly be strengthened. But the public debate needs to be changed as well. Workers are not just another interest group whose rights are somehow distinct from the well-being of society as a whole. We are all substantially healthier—both figuratively and literally—when workers have a voice.
The construction worker who spots unsafe scaffolding that endangers pedestrians below, the grocery store employee who sees expired food on the shelf and, yes, the burger flipper who detects a gas leak—they all need to be able to speak out without fear, for their own sake and for ours.
Eric T. Schneiderman is New York attorney general.
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