July 31, 2014

No defense for violating worker rights

OSHA logo; OSHAEven when railroads return workers to their jobs with full back pay after wrongly terminating them for suffering a workplace injury, significant monetary sanctions may still be imposed by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Case in point is Norfolk Southern, which was ordered to pay damages in excess of $580,000 in August after violating the Federal Railroad Safety Act’s worker protections against employer harassment, intimidation, discipline and termination in retaliation for reporting workplace injuries or safety concerns.

Railroads have been hit with millions of dollars in sanctions by OSHA over the past year for such behavior, but this case is significant in that the railroad unsuccessfully claimed it should not be sanctioned because after terminating the worker it reinstated him with full back pay.

The unidentified conductor, who suffered a shoulder injury, had been riding the lead car to protect a shove at NS’s Decatur, Ill., yard when several cars behind him derailed due to poorly maintained rail ties.

NS initially claimed the injury was fabricated, and fired the conductor for allegedly making a false injury report. A public law board subsequently ordered the railroad to rehire the conductor with full back pay – 10 months after the workplace injury — and he continues to work for NS. During those 10 months of unemployment, the conductor endured significant financial distressed.

A UTU designated legal counsel, who brought a complaint before OSHA under the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, said NS contended there were no damages to be assessed because the conductor had been put back to work with full pay.

OSHA said the NS arguments were baseless and that the railroad should be punished for violating the conductor’s rights under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

OSHA then ordered NS to pay the conductor – in addition to the back pay already received – more than $580,000 to cover pain and suffering, punitive damages, loss of employer-paid benefits during the period of unemployment, attorney’s fees and additional lost wages plus interest because OSHA said NS had under-calculated the amount of back pay.

NS also was ordered by OSHA to restore the conductor’s seniority level and vacation and sick days credit, and further credit him with 10 months of service toward his Railroad Retirement pension.

OSHA also ordered NS to provide all workers in its Decatur yard with a copy of an OSHA fact sheet on whistleblower protection, to post in the yard a notice explaining worker rights under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, and to expunge from the conductor’s personnel file all records of his termination and OSHA claim.

“This decision sends a powerful message that terminating an employee for an injury creates financial exposure for the railroad far beyond just having to put him back on the job with back pay,” said UTU International President Mike Futhey. “No longer can a railroad simply calculate the worse-case scenario as having only to provide back pay.”

A rail employee who believes he was improperly harassed, intimidated, disciplined or terminated for reporting a workplace injury or safety concern may file a whistle-blower complaint directly with OSHA, or may contact a UTU designated legal counsel, general chairperson or state legislative director for assistance.

A listing of UTU designated legal counsel is available at:

http://utu.org/designated-legal-counsel

or may be obtained from local or general committee officers or state legislative directors.

To view a more detailed OSHA fact sheet, click on the following link:

www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA-factsheet-whistleblower-railroad.pdf