Many of us have seen things take place in the workplace that just don't feel right. Sometimes it may be someone taking advantage of their position, other times it could involve actual criminal activity. Unfortunately, many people fail to report these types of violations, out of the fear of losing their jobs, or creating a hostile workplace. Whistleblower laws are intended to protect people who speak out so they don't have to fear retaliation.
A couple of whistleblower cases have come to light here in Illinois, which reflect the complicated laws and procedures that can be involved in employment law and whistleblower protection. These cases often invoke both state law, under the Illinois Whistleblower Act (IWA), as well as federal regulations.
When a retail employee witnesses an individual shoplifting from the store, it may seem like contacting the police is the right thing to do. However, many large retailers have policies against contacting the police or security, instead requiring the matter to be handled in-house through the company's loss prevention program. One employee of a major shoe store was fired for calling the police on a suspected thief, and is seeking protection under the Illinois Whistleblower Act.
Melissa Coffey was an assistant manager at the Discount Shoe Warehouse (DSW) in Skokie, Illinois. When she saw what she suspected to be customers shoplifting, she called the police. A DSW policy prohibited employees from calling law enforcement for suspected shoplifting, and fired Coffey. However, Coffey said she was never even aware of the policy. Coffey then sought protection under the state's whistleblower protections.
DSW claimed that the whistleblower protection only applies to reporting wrongdoing of other employees. However, a federal judge found in favor of Coffey, stating, “the IWA bars retaliation against any person who provides information to law enforcement so long as that person ‘has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation.'”
In Rochelle, Illinois, a Nippon Sharyo employee was allegedly fired in retaliation for her speaking out against unsafe working conditions. Jennifer Svenkund, 42, was employed as an interior railcar assembler. She said she was assigned to work inside rail cars that lacked handrails or safety boards, which could have resulted in a fall or other injury. She asked her bosses for safety boards, but was reportedly told to do her job and that she didn't need the boards. Without a resolution, she went to the plant's safety manager, who took care of the issue.
However, the next day, Svenkund was called into a disciplinary meeting and told that her coworkers were complaining about her, sent home without pay, took her off the safety committee, and was given a last-chance warning. Svenkund believes she was reprimanded because she had gone above her supervisor to complain about unsafe conditions, and filed a whistleblower case with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). She was later fired from her position.
If you suspect that you were fired, denied a raise or otherwise reprimanded for reporting a safety violation or other unlawful activity, you should speak with an experienced attorney who understands Illinois whistleblower cases. At Benassi & Benassi, we are committed to getting our clients the justice they deserve.