OSHA Orders Air Carrier to Pay $400,000 to Employee Terminated for Raising Safety Concerns

OSHA has ordered Southern Air Inc., a cargo airline headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., to pay more than $400,000 in lost wages, back pay, damages and legal fees to compensate a flight crew member who was terminated for raising safety concerns protected under the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR21). Southern Air, however, stated the employee was not let go for raising safety issues and instead complained to OSHA after being terminated.

According to OSHA, the employee was terminated in April 2008 after twice complaining to management about inadequate rest breaks and being required to work hours in excess of those allowed under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. The employee then filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA's Boston Regional Office.

OSHA's investigation found merit to the complaint and issued a Notice of Secretary's Findings and Preliminary Order to Southern Air that directs the air carrier to pay the complainant $300,000 for loss of career wages, $135,240 in compensatory damages, $7,394.65 in attorney's fees and back pay of $1,485 per week, plus interest, from April 7, 2008, through the date of payment. The company is also ordered to post the FAA whistleblower poster and an OSHA notice to employees about their whistleblower rights.

"Employees have a strong and clear right to raise legitimate safety and health concerns about their working conditions without fear of termination or reprisal," said Marthe Kent, OSHA's New England regional administrator. "We will pursue the appropriate legal remedies whenever we find that workers have been denied this vital safeguard."

Southern Air: Claim Has No Merit

According to a spokesperson from Southern Air, OSHA’s findings were issued without the benefit of a full hearing. The company intends to appeal.

“Southern Air disagrees vigorously with the OSHA findings and order, and stated that the underlying claim is without merit and that the company has been in full compliance with all Federal Aviation regulations at all times,” the company representative stated. “To that point, Southern Air has appealed the ruling and fully expects to have the order overturned once it has an opportunity to present all of the facts.”

The spokesperson added that OSHA’s explanation for why the so-called “whistleblower” employee was terminated is incorrect.

“The employee in question was terminated for unprofessional conduct unrelated to safety complaints,” the spokesperson said. “It was only after his employment had been terminated that he raised certain issues with OSHA. He did not allege any safety violations during the period of his employment.”

Both the complainant and the airline have 30 days from receipt of the findings to file an appeal with the Labor Department's Office of Administrative Law Judges.

In addition to AIR21, OSHA administers the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, airline, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, rail, public transportation and consumer product safety laws.

Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights is available at http://www.osha.gov/dep/oia/whistleblower/index.html.

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