Washington, DC — State employees who report violations of law, fraud, waste or threats to public safety may not be legally protected depending on which state employs them, according to a detailed analysis of state laws released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While a few states provide strong legal support for civil servants who blow the whistle, most provide limited or no protection against official retaliation.
“Whistleblower laws are a key measure of how transparent state governments are to their citizens,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who drafted California’s main whistleblower law and whose organization works on behalf of environmental whistleblowers across the country. “Suppression of critical information behind closed doors is the principal prerequisite for official corruption.”
PEER ranked each law on 32 factors affecting the scope of coverage, usefulness and strength of remedies. By these measures, California and the District of Columbia have the most complete laws. South Dakota, Alabama, Georgia and Connecticut have the weakest laws while Virginia, New Mexico and Vermont have no whistleblower laws at all. The large majority of states have laws with gaping holes, including:
- Narrow Coverage. Twenty-five states do not protect employees when they report threats to public health and safety. Twenty-one states do not sanction employee reports of waste while only 17 states shield employee disclosures of gross mismanagement. No state shields scientists citing data manipulation or findings altered for non-scientific reasons;
- Limited Utility. Thirteen states do not protect employees reporting crimes to law enforcement while eight states do not protect employees who testify before the legislature. Only eleven states recognize employee disclosures to the media as protected; and
- Weak Enforcement. State employees in ten states are confined to administrative appeals with no court review. Twenty-one states deny any prospect of collecting damages for mental anguish or lost career opportunities. No state bans blackballing whistleblowers from future job openings.
The importance of state whistleblower laws has been magnified by recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (Ceballos v. Garcetti) stripping government employees of all First Amendment protection when speaking within the scope of their duties. In addition, over the past few years, the Supreme Court has also denied state workers coverage under federal whistleblower laws. Consequently, state statutes are increasingly the only defense for government workers in state agencies who face reprisal for reporting wrongdoing.
There is no clear “red state” versus “blue state” pattern: Oklahoma, for example, has a stronger law than seemingly more progressive New York. Similarly, there is no geographic pattern: Oregon, for example, possesses a much better law than next-door Washington, whose law ranks among the worst.
“It is surprising how many state laws are deficient in protecting state employees who are simply doing their jobs,” stated Alan Richard Kasdan, a retired senior lawyer with the Government Accountability Office who did the bulk of the legal research for the rating project.
See how each state ranks on the whistleblower “Honesty Index”
Look at a breakdown in whistleblower protection provisions among the states
Find out about the whistleblower law in your state