Law grants whistleblower protections to transportation workers

Transportation workers who expose security threats and other concerns will gain broad protections for such disclosures under major anti-terrorism legislation signed into law Friday.

The provisions were enacted as part of a measure (H.R. 1) to implement the unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Congress approved the legislation last week.

The whistleblower provisions protect from retaliation those surface transportation employees who disclose safety violations, security threats and misuses of taxpayer funds. The law also guards transportation workers who testify before Congress or raise safety concerns to their managers.

"This legislation will make a real difference in the safety of our highways and rails," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based nonprofit public interest group. "Whistleblowers are America's first line of defense -- literally where the rubber meets the road."

Under the law, transportation whistleblowers found to have suffered from illegal retaliation such as the loss of their job are eligible for reinstatement, compensatory damages, attorney fees and up to $250,000 in punitive damages. The law requires employees to file whistleblower claims with the Labor Department, but allows them to take their case to federal district court if they have not received a timely administrative ruling from the agency.

"Jury trials for cases of whistleblower retaliation are a whistleblower's only genuine opportunity for a fair day in court -- with justice decided by the citizens the employee is trying to defend," Devine said.

Meanwhile, a provision that would have granted collective bargaining rights to thousands of airport screeners at the Transportation Security Administration did not make it back into the final law. Both the House and Senate had agreed to the language in their initial versions of the bill, but last month Senate Democrats agreed to strip the collective bargaining provision in order to move the legislation to conference negotiations.

House Democratic conferees later indicated that they would still try to address the issue during negotiations. But a Capitol Hill spokeswoman indicated that Democrats were unable to move the collective bargaining provisions forward.

Some lawmakers have argued it was worth dropping the provision -- which was not included in the 9/11 Commission's recommendations -- to get the rest of the bill enacted. President Bush had threatened to veto the measure, citing opposition to the TSA provision.

"Though I am disappointed that collective bargaining and whistleblower rights for TSA screeners were not included in the final report, I applaud Sen. Lieberman and the 42 other conferees who stood with us on this important legislation," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., in a statement.

Still, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, indicated last month that she may try to address screener bargaining rights through a separate measure. "I remain open and very interested," she said last month.

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