Articles Posted in Government Employees

austin-campbellThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is part of the Department of Labor and administers the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), as well as numerous other safety and whistleblower laws.  OSHA also sets safety standards for various industries.  Because of OSHA, many employers have a general duty to prevent working conditions that pose a risk of serious and recognized harm.

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Under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, Texas government and public employees are entitled to certain protections. Generally, the Clause prohibits the government from depriving individuals of their life, liberty, or property interest without due process. In most cases, Texas government employees reasonably expect to continue their employment. This reasonable expectation results in a protected property interest.

Texas government employers should provide their employees with their due process rights before terminating their employee’s positions. Due process includes providing an employee with notice and a fair hearing. If a Texas employee believes their employer violated their due process rights, the courts will evaluate their case by examining two main factors. First, the court needs to determine whether the individual has a protected interest in continued employment and, second, whether the employer provided them with notice and a suitable level of process.

Typically, an employee’s expectation derives from their employer’s handbook or policy. In these cases, an employer’s policy or procedure may indicate that termination may only occur for “just cause.” Sometimes employer’s policies will further explain that other adverse employment actions, such as demotion and suspension, cannot happen without just cause as well. Although there is no official definition for “just cause,” there are many factors the courts will examine to determine whether the circumstances meet the threshold. Some elements include: the warning, the reasonableness of the prohibited behavior, the inquiry to determine fault, if the investigation was fair, whether the rules are applied consistently, and the employee’s record. Even if a Texas employer’s handbook, contract, or policy does not explicitly provide a property interest, their past practices may establish otherwise.

A whistleblower is an employee who reports a workplace violation. Whistleblowers are responsible for making the workplace a safer and more equal environment. However, employees often do not report violations in the workplace because they fear that if they did, their livelihood might be jeopardized based on potential retribution from their employers. To promote workplace safety and to ensure that companies and organizations are not violating the law, federal and state governments enacted various whistleblower protection acts.

Most recently, a presidential Executive Order required the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). This office is designed to ensure the VA is accountable for its policies, procedures, and conduct. VA employees, potential employees, and former employees can report certain violations to this office. The OAWP is required to receive and investigate these disclosures. Furthermore, they ensure the employee does not face any retaliation for their disclosure. Retaliation includes actions taken against the employee based on their complaints such as termination, demotion, or any other adverse employment action.

Typically, the OAWP will investigate allegations regarding violations of rules or laws, fund mismanagement, abuse of authority, and behavior that is dangerous to public health or safety. The OAWP directly reviews claims of misconduct, retaliation, and performance issues that involve certain VA employees. The scope of the investigation is limited to VA employees that are senior executives or those that are in a confidential or policy-making position. The office will investigate supervisory employees if the allegations concern retaliation against an employee.

Veterans returning to the United States may face many challenges while trying to adjust to civilian life. Unfortunately, many veterans face employment discrimination, and they may have difficulty obtaining and maintaining employment. Often, employers are reluctant to hire individuals who suffer from disabilities related to their deployment. This can have startling consequences for the workforce, since almost a third of the 12 million veterans report having some type of disability.

In response to the rising reports of employment discrimination, Congress enacted the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA). At its inception, the VEVRAA provided Vietnam veterans with protection against employment discrimination. Some common forms of employment discrimination veterans face are when an employer claims a job is no longer available, an employer states they do not want to hire veterans for fear of future deployments, an employer counts military leave against accrued vacation time, or an employer harasses or otherwise retaliates against a service member.

Although the name suggests otherwise, the VEVRAA protections apply to several categories of protected veterans. Protected veterans include those who were:

  • Released from active duty because of a service-connected disability or entitled to compensation under the Veterans Administration;
  • Recently released;
  • On active duty; or
  • Campaign or Armed Forces medal recipients.

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Recently, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion that will have a significant impact in federal age discrimination cases against government employers. In the case Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, the Court held the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to government employers of all sizes.

The ADEA

When the ADEA was passed in 1967, it added age to the list of characteristics that could not be used by an employer as a basis for an adverse employment decision. Under section 630(b), the ADEA defines the term employer as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees.” However, the statute also states that an employer “also means … a State or political subdivision of a State and any agency or instrumentality of a State or a political subdivision of a State.”

The Facts of the Case

According to the Court’s opinion, the plaintiffs were two men, aged 46 and 54, who were terminated from their positions by the defendant fire department when the fire department began facing budgetary concerns. The fire department was a political subdivision of the State of Arizona. At the time they were fired, the employees were the oldest two firefighters in the department.

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In 1979, the United States Civil Service Commission established the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which is an agency designed to prevent federal employers from engaging in prohibited personnel practices. Under the MSPB, federal employees are entitled to a hearing after they are terminated, suspended, or demoted because of their performance or conduct.The MSPB process is crucial for employees who believe that their conduct did not warrant the adverse employment action taken against them. The Civil Service Reform Act mandates that federal employees are given their due process when terminated. This is to prevent powerful federal employers from engaging in arbitrary employment actions. Of course, when a federal employer takes an adverse action against an employee, there are lasting impacts on that person’s personal and professional life.

The MSPB is a complex entity, and there are many roadblocks that an employee may encounter, due to the nature of the employing agency and the processes involved. First, employees should consult with an attorney to determine whether their adverse employment action will trigger an MSPB appeal. Although it seems clear in some situations, MSPB protections are not extended to all types of federal positions. However, some common situations when an appeal is triggered are when there is an adverse action or a forced retirement. Furthermore, even though the MSPB will attempt to handle a claim within six months, the Board may also pressure the parties to settle in order to more quickly resolve the matter. A Texas employment lawyer can guide employees in effectively working through these steps.

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The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is an entity that protects your rights if you are a federal civil service employee. The purpose of the board is to provide federal employees with the chance to appeal personnel decisions that are not in their favor or that are unfair. It is separate from partisan politics and is supposed to be an independent system. The President appoints the board members of this entity.

The MSPB is organized with multiple regional offices, although board members serve at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Often, appeals happen in D.C., since that is where many federal workers do their jobs. Among the regional or field offices is one in Dallas.

At these offices, administrative law judges hear cases related to federal workers and agencies. The board members are supposed to protect the federal merit system, working together with the administrative law judges, attorneys, and staff at the MSPB to successfully implement the mission of the entity.

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