Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, written in 1906, portrays the harsh conditions immigrant workers faced in the meatpacking industry at the turn of the century. Sinclair’s novel helped pave the way for reform in the meatpacking industry and probably spawned the vegetarian movement, but that’s just neither here nor there.
Recently, a jerky maker in West Virginia became the target of a Department of Labor (DOL) lawsuit after it terminated an employee for calling 911. Taking a page right out of The Jungle, this tale is filled with workers’ woe and a lesson for every employer.
According to Business Insurance, in 2014, “Jane,” an employee at the jerky manufacturer, came to the aid of “John,” her coworker. John had severed his thumb, and Jane rushed to help. As she applied pressure to the wound, she took out her cell phone and proceeded to call 911. Before she could complete the call, the owner of the plant, “Monty,” arrived. Monty told Jane to hang up the phone, and he would decide whether or not John needed an ambulance.
Monty decided the amputation did not require an ambulance and requested a supervisor escort John to an urgent care clinic to have the thumb reattached. Unfortunately, the appendage could not be saved. Later that afternoon, Jane reached out to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and aired her grievances, claiming Monty “did not fully clean or sanitize the area of the plant where the injury occurred. She discussed her concerns about the incident, cleanup, lack of appropriate personal protective equipment and her attempt to call 911.”
Two days later, Jane was fired for “slow production,” but she claims Monty also cited government regulations and a lawsuit that was filed against the plant when discussing her termination. So, which is it? Was she really fired for being a whistleblower or because of “slow production.” Jane called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and filed a complaint, alleging that Monty “specifically terminated her in retaliation for engaging in a protected activity under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
The DOL then filed suit on behalf of Jane, seeking punitive damages and back wages. The DOL is also requesting the jerky maker post a notice at its facility for 60 days stating it will not discriminate or retaliate against employees involved in protected activities.
OSHA Regional Administrator Richard Mendelson told Business Insurance magazine, “[the company] punished an employee for seeking emergency medical care for a seriously injured co-worker … Her efforts were protected under Section 11(c) and showed basic human decency. No worker should have to fear retaliation from their employer for calling 911 in an emergency or taking other action to report a workplace safety or health incident.”
Melissa Blazejak is a Senior Web Content Editor at BLR. She has written articles for HR.BLR.com and the HR Daily Advisor websites and is responsible for the day-to-day management of HR.BLR.com and HRLaws.com. She has been at BLR since 2014. She graduated with a BA of Science, specializing in Communication, from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2008. Most recently, she graduated in 2014 with a MS of Educational Technology.
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Author: Melissa Blazejak