Labor Ponders Breaking up Troubled Whistleblower Program
Splitting Whistleblower Duties between Agencies Likely Does More Harm than Good
Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Labor is wrestling with whether to dismember its embattled whistleblower protection program, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The plan under consideration would move whistleblower enforcement for 18 environmental, consumer protection, and other statues out of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), although workplace health and safety whistleblower cases, which currently account for approximately two-thirds of total complaints, would remain with OSHA.
In an October 8, 2010 letter, Danielle Gibbs, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 12 Vice President for OSHA, representing employees within the Office of the Whistleblower Protection Program (OWPP), wrote about ongoing “plans for a major reorganization,” stating that “for months, the Department has, in fact, been planning to remove OWPP from OSHA and merge it into the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS)” – a unit responsible for enforcing union democracy and transparency rules. Ms. Gibbs cites a “widely circulated” PowerPoint presentation outlining the transfer and the fact that OLMS employees have been notified of the move, although those within her unit have not.
This letter was sent to Assistant Secretary for OSHA David Michaels complaining about his failure to formally notify “the bargaining Unit employees within OWPP – those who will be most affected by this change” (emphasis in original). Asst. Sec. Michaels did not respond directly to Ms. Gibbs but, on his behalf, Ms. Cecimil Maldonado of OSHA Human Resources replied on October 14 that “To date, no decisions have been made on any whistleblower reorganization.”
Recently, withering reports from both the Government Accountability Office and the Labor Office of Inspector General have taken OSHA to task for neglect of the whistleblower program, whose jurisdiction has doubled in the last decade with no major increases in staff or support. In response, OSHA has largely conceded the validity of this wide-ranging critique but has yet to commit to any concrete steps, instead deferring to the outcome of an internal “top to bottom” review.
“The whistleblower program has been the redheaded stepchild of OSHA. It is time that this vital program had a home of its own rather than be shuttled off to foster care,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that the OSHA Strategic Plan does not even mention the whistleblower program and neither does a 7-page “Vision Update” just issued by Asst. Sec. Michaels on October 15, 2010. “Balkanizing the whistleblower program will make it even easier to keep it out of sight and out of mind.”
PEER and other whistleblower protection groups have urged Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to create and appropriately staff a stand-alone whistleblower operation, citing the break-up of the discredited Minerals Management Service by Interior as an example of a mission-driven reorganization. PEER points to problems aggravated by splitting the whistleblower programs between OSHA & OLMS, including –
- Separate investigations by two different programs of whistleblower complaints brought under multiple statutes;
- Splitting an already ultra-thin investigator corps (less than 100 investigators enforce whistleblower provisions covering more than 200 million U.S. workers); and
- Less ability to produce comparable performance measures or garner support for additional resources for a function that is hidden inside not one but two different bureaucracies.
“Dividing the whistleblower program between two agencies within the Labor Department makes no sense and seems a good bet to make a very bad situation even worse,” Ruch concluded, noting that the plan would also leave orphaned four small whistleblower programs protecting miners, veterans and others housed in other Labor bureaus. “It is beyond ironic that the whistleblower staff themselves report an intense fear of retaliation from OSHA management. Labor and OSHA should open up this decision not only to public dialogue but also to a genuine conversation with its own workers and their unions.”