September 4, 2003

CHICAGO (Sept. 4)—Gov. Rod Blagojevich has signed into law a promising bill designed to prevent private-sector employees in Illinois from being fired or disciplined when they report their employers’ violations to government agencies.

Public Act 93-0544, known as the Whistleblower Act, was signed by the Governor August 18 after passing the Illinois Senate March 27 by a vote of 57-1. The Act passed the Illinois House May 22 by an 87-31 margin. It takes effect January 1, 2004.

“Few industries are more impacted by state and federal regulation than railroads,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “That means railroad employees will be major beneficiaries when this law takes effect The union continues to hear reports from rank-and-file members as well as from union officers that employees face retaliation after reporting regulatory violations to state and federal agencies. The Whistleblower Act provides a significant new level of protection to those employees who choose to come forward and speak the truth.”

Szabo noted that the Whistleblower Act does not pre-empt or supersede the protections currently afforded to rail employees under the Railway Labor Act and collective-bargaining agreements.

“All of those existing forms of protection remain intact, plus the employee now gets an important new form of protection—the right to sue his employer,” Szabo said. “The Whistleblower Act says that if an employer retaliates against an employee who informs governmental authorities that the company is violating a statute, rule or administrative regulation, ‘the employee may bring a civil action against the employer for all relief necessary to make the employee whole.’

The Act says such relief may include “reinstatement with the same seniority status that the employee would have had…back pay with interest, and compensation for any damages…including litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorney’s fees.”

“Employers now will have to think twice about firing or disciplining an employee who speaks out to the Federal Railroad Administration, the Illinois Commerce Commission or another regulatory agency about safety violations or other failures to observe the law,” Szabo said. “The Whistleblower Act dramatically raises the cost to the company of mistreating an employee. Along with the risk of having to hire the employee back and paying him or her all of his back wages with interest, the employer now will have to pay the employee’s lawyers. Those costs can add up.”

Szabo said that although the Whistleblower Act has not yet been tested in court, it may have the potential to protect railroad employees against harassment over their on-duty injury claims.

“Under the law, on-the-job injuries suffered by railroad employees must be reported by the employer to the Federal Railroad Administration,” Szabo said. “If a carrier takes action against an employee for claiming an injury, the courts in Illinois may choose to construe that activity as an attempt to evade federal law. If so, an employee subjected to such inappropriate action might have a legal case against employer retaliation.

“But at this point we don’t know,” Szabo said. “We’ll just have to see what happens when the first such case reaches the courts. Regardless, based on the language of the new law, it appears that railroad employees have an important new weapon to protect themselves against management retaliation.”