The dismissals of four employees who questioned how North Dakota’s workers compensation agency was being run showed a state law intended to guard against such firings is almost useless, a state senator believes.
Sen. Tracy Potter, D-Bismarck, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to endorse legislation he is sponsoring that would require the state auditor to investigate “whistleblower” complaints, and give the labor commissioner power to reinstate any employee fired as retaliation for reporting suspected wrongdoing.
“Our whistleblower statute … seems to have no teeth,” Potter said. “We say that we protect public employees, but we don’t, really.”
North Dakota’s current whistleblower protection law says an employee who reports possible wrongdoing at his or her workplace may not be demoted, fired or retaliated against, unless the employee’s report was a deliberate lie.
Four Workforce Safety and Insurance employees requested protection in October 2007, after the agency’s former director, Sandy Blunt, returned to work after a six-month leave. Blunt had been charged with misspending WSI money and conspiring to misuse confidential information the agency had obtained.
One of the employees was fired that December, the day before Blunt himself was forced out of his job. The remaining three were sacked in March 2008 as part of what was described as a shakeup in how the agency was organized.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who received the requests for whistleblower protection, said the law did not give him power to reinstate anyone who was illegally fired.
Potter and Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, have both introduced legislation intended to strengthen the whistleblower measure. The Senate Judiciary Committee this week held hearings on both bills, and will make its recommendations later. The entire Senate will eventually vote on the proposals.
Holmberg said his bill would designate the labor commissioner as someone whom public employees may contact to report suspected wrongdoing. He described the legislation as “a minor change” to existing law.
Potter’s measure is more expansive. It makes whistleblowing complaints by public employees confidential until a probe is completed and gives the state auditor authority to check allegations of wrongdoing.
If a worker is dismissed, the labor commissioner would have power to order the employee reinstated and given up to two years’ worth of back pay and benefits, the legislation says.
“The lessons of the WSI whistleblowers … have a chilling
effect on other state employees,” Potter said. “The way it is
seen, broadly, is that several state employees blew the whistle and
then ended up losing their jobs. Wrongdoing at the agency was
eventually confirmed … but the damage to the employees had been
Potter’s bill is SB2258. Holmberg’s bill is SB2267.
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