This is why the U.S. Department of Labor has sued U.S. Postal Service in federal court on behalf of a maintenance employee at the St. Louis Network Distribution Center.
The employee, a 35-year vet of the USPS who was responsible for the heating and air-conditioning systems at the center, says it all began back in late 2009, when he told his supervisors about a suspected carbon monoxide leak, along with a fuel oil spill and a pile of oil-soaked rags in the boiler room. He says supervisors would not give him a carbon monoxide detector to test if there was indeed a leak, nor did they do anything to dispose of the rags
He also contacted OSHA with his concerns. But when the inspector arrived the next day, management took him to the boiler room via stairs that avoided the adjacent room containing the pile of rags. Additionally, the inspector did not have a carbon monoxide detector on him, so he could not perform that test.
Two days after initially trying to bring his concerns to his supervisors, the employee tried to contact a fire marshal about possible leak. When he couldn’t reach the marshal, the employee called 9-1-1.
According to the complaint [PDF], when authorities arrived to investigate, the employee’s supervisors allegedly characterized him as “disgruntled” and alleged that he was “attempting to sabotage the facility,” even though he’d given no such indication.
This alone, according to the Dept. of Labor, is a violation of Section 11 (c) of the OSHA Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee for, among other things, reporting a safety concern to the fire department.
Even so, the employee was suspended the next day for 15 days without pay, a further violation of the law, according to the complaint. The suspension continued well past the 15 days, though the employee received payment for those days.
This is when, says the DOL, the USPS management began to engage “in a concerted effort to pressure the county prosecutor’s office to criminally prosecute” the employee because he’d contacted the authorities about his safety concerns.
The complaint states that USPS supervisors told people the employee was a drug user, dangerous, unstable, and “a terrorist” with no factual evidence to back up these statements.
On March 30, 2010, the employee — still suspended at this point — filed a complaint with OSHA for this alleged retaliation against his whistle-blowing. On April 3, local police arrested him and charged him with making a terrorist threat and making a false report. The man spent 18 hours in jail before being released.
Two weeks later, the USPS Office of the Inspector General cleared the employee of allegations that he’d been responsible for a destructive act performed by a different employee. And yet his indefinite suspension continued.
In late September 2010, the employee was given a “Notice of Removal,” claiming he would be dismissed from the USPS for making the 9-1-1 call, as well as the then-pending charges of making terrorist threats and false reports. The notice also stated that the employee should have just disposed of the oil-soaked rags on his own.
He was given a “Notice of Decision” saying his employment would be terminated in Nov. 2010, but the employee appealed and continued to amend his OSHA complaint to include these further alleged retaliations.
In March 2011, almost a year after he’d been arrested, the St. Louis County prosecutor dismissed the criminal charges against the USPS employee.
Eventually, in May 2011, the USPS rescinded its earlier removal notices and reinstated the employee. He received back pay and benefits for the months between Nov. 2010 and May 2011, but not for the 15 days he’d been suspended without pay in 2010.
Nor did this reinstatement compensate the employee for his legal fees or the damage to his personal and professional reputation during the entire ordeal.
And so the DOL suit seeks damages to deter such conduct by the USPS, compensatory damages for the employee’s emotional distress, restoration of lost pay and benefits and compensation for attorney and other fees.
“The Postal Service not only disciplined this long-term employee for reporting unsafe working conditions, but also pursued a baseless criminal complaint against him resulting in his detention by law enforcement and the disparagement of his reputation,” said Marcia Drumm, acting regional administrator for OSHA. “No American worker should be subject to such treatment.”
In a statement to BusinessWeek, the USPS defends itself as an organization but does not comment on this particular case: “The U.S. Postal Service cares very much about our employees and we always place employee safety as a top priority. As this matter is the subject of ongoing litigation, we are unable to comment further.”