Labor Department Orders Union Pacific Railroad to Pay More Than $600,000 for Whistleblower Violations

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) alleged that Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Railroad Co. violated Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) whistleblower protection provisions and ordered the company to pay more than $615,000 in damages, fees and back wages.

According to DOL, separate OSHA investigations revealed that Union Pacific Railroad fired two employees and suspended another in retaliation for reporting safety concerns and a work-related injury.

“Workers have the right to report work-related injuries and safety concerns without fear of retaliation,” said OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels. “Union Pacific Railroad has created a climate of fear instead of a climate of safety. The company must take immediate steps to change this unacceptable pattern of retaliation.”

DOL ordered Union Pacific to $400,000 in punitive damages, $90,315 in compensatory damages, $34,900 in attorney fees and more than $90,000 in back wages to the three employees. DOL also ordered Union Pacific Railroad to provide training on whistleblower rights to its managers, supervisors and employees and to notify employees of their rights to be able to file complaints without fear of retaliation under the FRSA.

This action follows two other orders issued by OSHA to Union Pacific Railroad in 2010 and 2011, which found that the company had similarly retaliated against other workers for reporting work-related injuries. The railroad operates in 23 states and employs more than 40,000 workers.

In a company statement, Union Pacific claimed that OSHA has made “inaccurate comments about Union Pacific’s safety programs” and would appeal the findings.

Alleged Violations

According to DOL, a Kansas City, Mo.-based Union Pacific Railroad conductor was terminated from employment in September 2010 after making repeated complaints to the company’s hotline about safety concerns that included fall and trip hazards, missing and obstructed roadway signs and right-of-way issues, and for noting that a supervisor violated safety procedures during a field test. The railroad also cited the conductor for having a tattoo that it deemed as creating a hostile work environment. The conductor received the tattoo, which commemorates his military service, prior to beginning his employment with the company in 2004, DOL stated.

Union Pacific, however, argued that the employee was not terminated for making safety complaints. “In reality, the dismissed employee had insisted on wearing a body decoration containing a well-known term of profanity and a death threat. He refused a simple request to cover his decoration while on duty. Union Pacific is entitled to restrict this misconduct,” the company stated.

A second Kansas City, Mo.-based conductor was suspended without pay from his job for 5 days in November 2010 after making several complaints to the company’s hotline regarding rough spots on the track, according to DOL. The company, meanwhile, contends that the employee ignored a required procedure for reporting a track safety issue and “was issued minimal discipline under the terms of his Collective Bargaining Agreement.”

OSHA found that the third employee, a locomotive engineer based in Tucson, Ariz., was terminated after reporting a workplace injury in August 2009. The company, however, said that the employee waited 2 months to report an on-the-job injury and that Union Pacific has an obligation to the Federal Railroad Administration to report injuries immediately. “More importantly, immediate reporting is necessary so that the safety issue can be addressed to prevent injuries to other employees,” the company added.

Union Pacific is appealing OSHA’s findings and intends to “demonstrate that its actions were both legal and appropriate.”

For more information on employee whistleblower rights, visit http://www.whistleblowers.gov.

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