A “whistleblower” is someone who informs authorities about a person's, employer's or other organization's illegal or unauthorized activity. This could include a government employee reporting fraud by a supervisor, a factory worker reporting ignored work safety issues, or a coworker reporting a boss who fired someone based on their sex or religion.
Many people are worried about reporting wrongdoing for fear of reprisal. Reporting misconduct may result in getting fired, or the organization could make the workplace so hostile that the employee has no choice but to quit. This is why there are whistleblower protections in place, so that conscientious individuals can feel free to report illegal or dangerous activity, without fear that their truthfulness will come back to bite them.
Illinois Whistleblower Rights
The Illinois Whistleblower Act protects employees from disclosing certain information to government or law enforcement agencies. This includes any information that an employee has reasonable cause to believes to be a violation of a state or federal rule, law or regulation. Additionally, employers cannot make or enforce any regulation or policy to prevent an employee from disclosing such information.
An employer may not retaliate against an employee who discloses information to law enforcement, a government agency, a court, administrative hearing or other proceeding, where the employee has reason to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal rule, law or regulation. Similarly, if an employee believes that participating in an activity would result in a violation of state or federal law, the employer may not retaliate against the employee for their refusal to participate.
Federal Whistleblower Protection
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is a federal law which protects federal employees who work for government agencies. If an individual makes a disclosure that reasonably shows a legal violation, gross mismanagement, waste of funds, abuse of power, or risk of danger to public health of safety, and an agency threatens to take retaliatory action against them, that agency may be violating federal whistleblower laws.
Obvious retaliation for whistleblowing may result in being fired, or transferred to a lower paying position. However, even where an employer does not make it obvious that reporting violations will be met with retaliation, they may take some retaliatory action that does not appear to be retaliation on its face. This may include:
- Denied raises;
- Job transfer to a dead-end job;
- Denied promotion;
- Eventual layoff;
- Sudden change in giving poor evaluations;
- Withdrawing benefits;
- Denied training; or
- Denied advancement.
Even if the job, pay and position are kept the same, and employer could encourage harassment of the whistleblower by other employees. Or in some close knit jobs, like firefighters or police officers, the coworker may come down very harshly on a whistleblower reporting wrongdoing or other violations, threatening the whistleblower, until they are forced to leave.
Creating a hostile work environment may act as constructive discharge, even if the employer never threatened actual retaliation. If the employer and other workers make working conditions be so difficult, they may make a reasonable person feel that they have no choice but to resign from their position.
Even if the employee is not actually retaliated against, simply threatening retaliation constitutes retaliation.
Under state law, violation of the Whistleblower Act is considered a Class A misdemeanor. When an employer violates an employee's whistleblower rights, the employee may seek damages against the employer in a civil action, for all relief that is necessary to make the employee whole again. This could include:
- Reinstatement in the job, with the same seniority status the employee would have had, but for the violation;
- Back pay, with interest; and
- Compensation for any damages, including litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorney's fees.
Workplace Safety Whistleblower
Despite obvious safety hazards to an employee or their fellow co-workers, some companies do not actively encourage reporting workplace violations. Under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements, an employer must fix all serious hazards that are identified by on-site consultants, within a reasonable time. It is your legal right to raise workplace safety issues, and your right to file a complaint if necessary.
If an employee discovers a health and safety violation, or believes there is a serious hazard, and their employer has not remedied the situation, the employee may file an OSHA complaint. Under whistleblower protections, the employee is protected from being fired, demoted or discriminated against by their employer for filing an OSHA complaint, or participating in an investigation.
In some cases, a whistleblower may actually be rewarded by reporting financial wrongdoing. As part of the Illinois False Claims Act, the legislature created the Illinois Whistleblower Reward and Protection Fund, which is a special fund in the state treasury. This fund is intended to encourage individuals to report fraudulent actions of state employees or contractors doing business with the government.
Fraudulent action may include bribes, kickbacks, extortion, public corruption, or other fraud. Whistleblowers who report fraudulent activity are eligible to receive a portion of the damages recovered, up to 30% of the damage award, including court costs and legal fees. The whistleblower is also protected from retaliation if they are an employee of the agency.
Whistleblower Protection Lawyers
It is not easy to risk your job, reputation and livelihood, even if you know that reporting fraudulent action is the right thing to do. There are legal protections in place to make sure that your employer does not retaliate against reporting illegal activity or unsafe conditions. However, you may want to speak with an Illinois whistleblower attorney to make sure you can protect your future.
Alternatively, if you have witnessed fraud by a government worker or agency, you may be able to report the fraudulent action, and be compensated for standing up for what is right. Our attorneys have successfully represented our clients' rights against whistleblower retaliation in Peoria and throughout the state of Illinois. If you have suffered financial or emotional injury as the result of reporting violations, contact your experienced Illinois whistleblower attorneys at Benassi & Benassi.