Whistleblowers — employees who disclose what they believe to be wrongdoing in their agencies — are protected from retaliation under both federal and Oregon law. That protection may get stronger if state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, has her way. She's introduced Senate Bill 1599, which would require the state to allow whistleblowers to report anonymously.
Winters told the Salem Statesman-Journal she got interested in the problem last fall after reading an article there about Gerritt Law, an Oregon Department of Transportation employee who was fired after repeated complaints about practices in his department.
Law sued ODOT, and the case was settled in May 2017. The state did not acknowledge that Law was retaliated against in that settlement, though it did pay him $95,000.
ODOT hired Law in May 2013, and he apparently began complaining about workplace problems shortly thereafter. For example, in 2014 he complained that work on a reader-sign pole being installed in Seaside was being done with the wrong-sized bolts. Seven months later, wind knocked the pole off its footing.
Two years later, he filed a formal complaint with the agency, saying his boss ignored problems and treated him and others unprofessionally. His complaint triggered several investigations and prompted others in the department to begin complaining as well. The investigations largely confirmed what Law and others had said.
Law was placed on administrative leave in 2015 and fired in April 2016. He filed the lawsuit in June of that year.
State workers should be able to complain about unsafe or unsavory practices without fear of retaliation. Anonymity would allow them to do just that.
Winters' bill, in addition to allowing for anonymous complaints, would require the state Department of Justice to create a manual and a mandatory training program for all department supervisors and employees on employee rights and prohibited employer conduct in the state.
Everything in Winters' bill may not be necessary. But state agencies should take anonymous complaints seriously and have a procedure.