Time for Congress to Standardize Whistleblower Protections

On Thursday, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif), Chairwoman of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, introduced the “Private Sector Whistleblower Protection Streamlining Act of 2007,Whistleblower protection is freedom of speech when it counts. But currently neither management nor workers know what the rules are, because the statutes are a labyrinth that only a legal specialist could hope to understand. The bottom line objective of this bill is clear: one set of clear, comprehensive, consistent modern rules for whistleblower law. For instance, an employee at a meat packing plant has free speech rights to challenge the release of fecal-contaminated water flowing into a river. But the same employee has no rights when disclosing the shipment of fecal-contaminated meat and poultry to a supermarket’s butcher case. This bill fixes that.The legislation also attempts to restore a credible system of due process to enforce whistleblower rights by overhauling the bankrupt system for administrative law at the Department of Labor (DOL). That department has become the Guantanamo Bay of whistleblower cases, a black hole where rights languish for 3-12 years, but there is no genuine chance for justice. To illustrate the breakdown, for the supposedly-landmark Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) corporate whistleblower rights, employees have not won a decision in 2.5 years at the initial investigative stage run by the Occupational Safety Administration. At the Administrative Review Board, which issues DOL's final decisions, whistleblowers have not won a single victory on the merits since 2002 when SOX was passed. Workers’ best odds are for preliminary rulings by administrative judges after hearings, where employees have won 3.6 percent of SOX decisions.

Woolsey’s bill responds to this by proposing a dedicated office to investigate whistleblower reprisals, restoring statutory rights gutted by DOL's bureaucratic judicial activism, imposing judicial due process standards on DOL hearings, trimming the ARB's authority to overturn factual rulings by administrative judges, and standardizing the SOX provision in all laws since 2002 allowing a fresh start in court if there is no timely administrative ruling.

After 30 years, the House and Senate are on the verge of creating a modern, functional system of law for the federal civil service by overhauling the Whistleblower Protection Act. It is time for Congress to push that same advance for others by standardizing rights tucked into 39 private sector laws.