Labor Department Whiffs on Whistleblower Reform
Internal Review Prescribes Mish-Mash of Minor Repairs, Avoids Structural Defects
Washington, DC — A long-awaited internal review of the troubled U.S. Labor Department whistleblower protection program essentially endorses the status quo despite a series of scathing reports by government and outside analysts, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). According to PEER, which released a copy today, the internal review does not even consider major changes urged by Congress and others, most prominently that the whistleblower program become autonomous rather than remain a collateral function buried inside the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).
Commissioned back in April 2010, this “top-to-bottom” review became the principal response by OSHA to blistering reports recently issued by the Government Accountability Office and Labor’s own Inspector General. Yet the review fails to address complaints about woefully ineffective OSHA stewardship of the program, which is supposed to protect millions of workers who report violations under 21 statutes. Several of these statutes were added just last year in major food safety, health care and Wall Street reform bills.
The review also ignored the findings of an internal survey which reflected strong employee sentiment for a separate or autonomous whistleblower program. PEER has sued OSHA to obtain full survey results which the agency paradoxically claims are “pre-decisional”. Among concerns voiced by employees are –
• Top OSHA management is hostile or indifferent to the whistleblower program, characterized as “anti-leadership” by one whistleblower advocacy group;
• The whistleblower program has no budget. There is not even a line item to track expenses or personnel, although the review does recommend that the program finally get a line item; and
• The program is run out of the OSHA regional offices as a side duty. The whistleblower protection function is not even mentioned in the OSHA Strategic Plan or “Vision” statement.
“Reading this confusing, cramped review by OSHA managers makes a compelling case why OSHA should no longer run this vital but neglected program,” stated PEER Executive Jeff Ruch, who led a call in July by whistleblower groups for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to create a separate whistleblower office, outside of OSHA, to which the Secretary has yet to substantively respond. “The review lays out a menu of conflicting and ultimately unsatisfying options – and there is no daily special.”
This fall, without public announcement, the Labor Department proposed splitting the whistleblower program, shifting coverage for all but workplace safety laws out of OSHA. That plan was vetoed by the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) which countered that the program should not be split up. As a result, the program appears to be stuck where it is, at least for another year.
“As Congress piles on new whistleblower laws and responsibilities, the Labor Department shrinks away from providing resources and management tools needed to fulfill this expanding mission,” Ruch added. “The mishandling of this challenge represents a serious leadership breakdown by Labor.”