The Surface Transportation Assistance Act fills in gaps in protections for whistleblowers in the transportation industry.

Summary: This article explores some of the nuances of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act’s anti-retaliation provisions, and how they can help you as a transportation employee. 

The federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act provides protections for employees who blow the whistle on safety problems on the job.  However, those protections do not cover every safety concern or industry, and employees have an extremely short, 30-day window in which to file a retaliation claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).    

Fortunately, OSHA also enforces various other more specific whistleblower laws.  One important example is the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982.  Among other things, that law provided broader protections for a narrower set of people: workers who drive commercial vehicles (including contractors), mechanics on commercial vehicles or employees who otherwise directly affect the safety of those vehicles, and employees who handle freight. 

The STAA protects a variety of situations or actions a transportation worker might take to ensure a safer workplace.  These include (1) filing a complaint about the violation of a transportation safety or security regulation; (2) testifying or planning to testify in a case related to the violation of transportation safety or security regulations; (3) a situation where your employer thinks you filed a complaint or testified about those issues, or were planning to do so; (4) refusing to operate a vehicle when doing so would violate a transportation regulation; (5) refusing to operate a vehicle because you were reasonably concerned about the risk of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition, and your employer refused to address the problem when asked to do so; (6) accurately reporting your hours on duty; (7) cooperating with a government safety investigation, including one related to an accident that caused injury; or (8) a situation where your employer thinks you are or might cooperate in that sort of investigation.   

The STAA prohibits many forms of retaliation. That is not limited to being fired, but also includes discipline, intimidation, suspension, harassment, blacklisting, or other retaliation against an employee regarding pay, terms, or privileges of employment.  If one the protected activities listed in the paragraph above contributed to your employer taking one of these actions against you, you may have an STAA retaliation claim.     

Just as important as what the STAA covers is the process that it creates for employees to protect their rights.  Like the OSH Act, complaints of STAA violations have to go through OSHA.  The law sets up a procedure whereby OSHA is supposed to investigate complaints and is empowered to reinstate employees, order employers cease safety violations, or require employers to pay damages (including things like lost wages, attorney fees, or punitive damages up to $250,000).  Fortunately, unlike the OSH Act, a worker has 180 days from the retaliation to make the complaint.  And critically, unlike the OSH Act an STAA complainant has a right to a full hearing with OSHA.  Beyond that, employees may have rights to pursue their case even further into federal court, putting their case before a fresh set of eyes.  

There are some important limitations to the STAA, however.  It only covers employers who operate in interstate commerce, meaning a company that solely operates in one state would not be covered.  Also, like the OSH Act, it does not protect public employees at all. 

If you work in the interstate transportation industry and are concerned your employer may retaliate against or (or already has), you should consult with an employment lawyer like those at Rob Wiley, P.C.  

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