Whistleblowing in the U.S. Government
By Wendy Ghannam
February 6, 2003
Since the Clinton Administration, health and safety factors have been subjects of inconsequential importance--especially for the rank and file working inside the federal civilian service spectrum. These matters are not just limited to federal employees, however, because the idea of whistleblowing on one's job over health and safety matters seems ludicrous at best to understand across the public/private spectrums. US agencies are mandated to protect all whistleblowers who come forward on the premise of disclosing ongoing patterns of abuse, fraud, and agency waste; yet, there are problems with this protocol.
The law that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also prohibits employers from retailiating against people who report unsafe working conditions. But a recent inspector general at the U.S. Department of Labor said such reprisals often occur, and that the current Presidential Administration should soon recommend changes to the law in order to increase worker production.
Even some Republicans in Congress, who have harshly criticized OSHA in the past, are now admitting new protections are needed because workers have been punished for years when they complain of conditions that lead to illness and injury. Conditions that have been repeated over the years include: toxic chemicals used on the job, dangerous machines, usage of contaminated needles which expose workers to the AIDS virus, and the strain of repetitive hand motion--whether at a computer keyboard or inside a meatpacking plant.
The author of this article was punished for her disclosures at USAID regarding heavy computer useage without proper ergonomic equipment being installed. As recently cited by the U.S. Department of Labor Inspector General, Mr. Charles Masten: "Workers are very vulnerable to reprisals by their employers for complaining about unsafe, unhealthy work conditions." The severity of this type of discrimination is high and nearly 70 percent of cases undertaken by Masten's IG Office have resulted in termination for employees from their jobs.
The Clinton Administration wanted to give workers six months, rather than 30 days to report any type of retaliation they experienced on their jobs to the U.S. Department of Labor. These measures would have primarily protected private industry workers, because federal civil servants who have been dismissed from their jobs have their cases funneled through the Merit Systems Board and/or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ghannam's case was heard in the Washington DC headquarters' office of the EEOC, and went through an appeal apparatus because of an Administrative Judge's mishandling of the case. Apparently, USAID wanted her case "squelched"--thereby setting a precedence, so that other employees could not enter under the same perimeter heading as Ghannam did. This act would have saved Uncle Sam millions in redress monies owed to jurisprudence-seeking federal employees at the time!
While most labor unions welcome the initiation of these proposals, no one ever told Ghannam that when one whistleblows on the job, the US government consistently conducts business by shoveling the exposed information under Uncle Sam's "Rug." Ghannam was even threatened by her agency's Inspector General when she had a one-on-one conference with him in May, 1996. He told her point-blank that he sided with the "ol' boys in-house", and that he could have cared less how the computers impacted every working woman in the agency at the time!
In Year 2000, Ghannam won an EEOC case earmarking the first time that a woman has earned her right to be re-employed because of carpal tunnel/repetitive stress disease unleashed on the job. Today, she still awaits the finalization of her case--and she realizes that this is because she whistleblew when she worked inside the agency. To date, at least four other women, who once worked at USAID, are now also in the throes of the EEOC litigation experience--all because of workplace health and safety due to USAID's apparent neglect to overhaul its ergonomic systems regarding its high-end computer technology.
Ghannam is now writing a book containing important elements that this EEOC case contained. Her case can be read at http://www.EEOC.Gov under Ghannam vs. U.S. Agency for International Development.
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