By SUZANNE DERSHOWITZ
On June 11th, POGO signed onto a letter with Government Accountability Project (GAP) and other allies demanding adequate funding for the Office of Whistleblower Protection Programs (OWPP) at the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OWPP enforces the whistleblower provisions of 21 statutes protecting over 65 million U.S. employees, safeguarding the rights of those who report abuses running the gamut from consumer product violations to fraud in the financial reform sector. The letter went out to the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and Subcommittees on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.
In the last 12 years, Congress has passed 12 new whistleblower protection laws requiring OWPPto conduct initial investigations, but OWPP has not had a meaningful increase in funding corresponding with their new enforcement duties. The Labor Department requested $20.379 million for OSHA’s whistleblower protection programs (an increase of $4.8 million from the FY 2012 appropriated level), and POGO urges Congress to authorize at least that amount in full.
At present, the whistleblower protection program is unable to satisfactorily investigate complaints in a timely manner, and the backlog is growing. This means that individuals who try to blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse have cases that are collecting dust. The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General estimated that OSHA needs 45-55 additional full time employees to handle cases within the 90-120 day timeframe required by law. The FY 2013 budget request for OSHA’s whistleblower program would allow OSHA to allocate 37 additional staff, which is a modest increase based on the IG’s estimate of need.
The bottom line: the program needs more resources to protect newly covered workers.
But not everyone agrees that OWPP deserves more funding. According to a Bloomberg BNA article, Chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee Representative John Kline (R-MN) opposes the proposed boost for whistleblower enforcement at OSHA.
You see efforts on [Democrats'] part to increase whistleblower opportunities, increase penalties, increase the number of inspectors, increase the number of inspections, and pull back from voluntary participation programs…We just have a fundamentally different view of what we think that relationship ought to be between the government and the workforce.
But Kline has it wrong. The mission of OSHA’s whistleblower program is not to punish employers but to enforce the laws that help ensure public health and safety in the workplace, protect consumers, and strengthen our economic system. OSHA enforces whistleblower laws that protect those who sound the alarm on abuses ranging from the sale of dangerous consumer products and improper disposal of hazardous waste to violations of public transportation safety laws and fraud in bad lending practices.
It is important to recognize that fully funding this program represents an investment in long-term savings, much like funding federal agencies’ Offices of Inspectors General or the Government Accountability Office (GAO). According to A Price Waterhouse survey of multinational corporations, whistleblowers are responsible for detecting more fraud than corporate internal security, internal audits, and law enforcement combined. Ultimately, increased funding to ramp up the enforcement capabilities of OSHA’s Office of Whistleblower Protection Programs is good for U.S. workers, whistleblowers who take risks to tell the truth, and the overall health of our economy.
Ranking Member of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) told POGO about the importance of authorizing the program in full:
Whistleblower protection is absolutely essential to safe workplaces and a strong economy. The current backlog at OWPP is unacceptable. Men and women who speak out about safety violations in the workplace demonstrate great courage. Providing $20 million to shield them from recrimination and retaliation is the least we can do. We have to bring OSHA into the 21st century, but we can’t do that without providing the resources it needs to do its job and meet its obligation to the American people.
Suzanne Dershowitz is a POGO public policy fellow