Whistleblowers play an integral role in the workplace. Whistleblowers are people that see illegal or unethical activities within their workplace and -- when their bosses refuse to do anything or look the other way -- report these violations to a government agency. Without these brave people, many serious violations of the law by individuals and employers would never come to light. Consequently, such individuals generally cannot be fired or disciplined for reporting the wrongdoing. FindLaw's Whistleblowers section covers information on what protections and rights the law offers to whistleblowers in a variety of circumstances.
The specifics of federal and state whistleblower protection laws vary quite a bit, but the singular goal is to encourage workers to report important safety or ethical violations without fear of retaliation. For example, let's say an employee has credible information that her employer has been dumping toxic waste in the local watershed. She knows this is both wrong and illegal, but doesn't want to lose her job for reporting it to the Environmental Protection Agency. If private-sector employees are protected by her state's whistleblower law, then she knows her employer will not retaliate.
And if the employer does retaliate, perhaps through a demotion or a freeze in salary, she may seek relief in court.
Even if the employer is found to be in compliance with the law, the employee who reported the alleged violation still is protected as a whistleblower as long as the initial report was made in good faith. Whistleblowers also include those who complain to the employer, refuse to participate in the violation, or assist with an official investigation into the claim.
Qui Tam Whistleblower Actions
If a whistleblower has credible information that his employer has defrauded the government (whether federal or state), then he may file a qui tam action to help the government recover those losses. In addition to helping the government recover money lost to fraud, an individual who files the suit typically receives a percentage of the money recovered as a reward. This reward ranges from 15 to 30 percent of the total damages.
State Whistleblower Laws
Whistleblower protections are established primarily at the state level. While every state has whistleblower protections to some extant, they vary in scope. For instance, virtually all such laws protect public-sector employees; but not all states extend these protections to those in the private-sector. Many states have separate statutes addressing the private and public sectors.
State laws typically allow plaintiffs (whistleblowers filing the claim) to recover damages for any injuries suffered, such as reinstatement or back pay. Employers convicted of violating whistleblower laws usually pay a fine.
Federal Whistleblower Protections
A number of federal laws include whistleblower protections for workers, including the Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act. If an employer violates the Safe Drinking Water Act by discharging industrial waste into a protected reservoir, for example, an employee who reports this to OSHA (or directly to the employer) is protected from retaliation. Other federal laws with built-in whistleblower protections include the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act; Energy Reorganization Act; Toxic Substance Control Act; and the Water Pollution Act.
Choose a link from the list below to learn more about whistleblower protection laws.