Whistleblower law advances in Legislature

  • Tue Apr 6th, 2021 5:00pm
  • News

By Angelica Relente

WNPA News Service

A bill moving through the Washington Legislature would allow workers to bring legal action if labor laws are not upheld.

The bill, House Bill 1076, would allow a person to bring suit as a whistleblower on unfair labor practices. The process, called a qui tam action, allows a private party to sue on behalf of the state. If a settlement is awarded, the whistleblower gets a share of the award and the rest goes to the state. Retaliation against an employee for engaging in a qui tam action would be prohibited.

Opponents say the bill could open the door for unnecessary lawsuits against businesses, but Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, HB 1076’s primary sponsor, said the bill allows workers in the state to enforce laws designed to protect them.

“But even with these laws…we still know that workers in the state don’t always get paid all the money that they’re owed, and they don’t always work in environments that are safe and free from discrimination. That’s where this bill comes in,” Hansen said.

Hansen said the point of HB 1076 is not meant to give “big ‘gotcha’ fines” to employers. The bill ensures workers get the wages they are entitled to and that their work environment is safe and free from discrimination, he said.

“I think this (bill) will be a very powerful tool,” Hansen said.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he is adamantly opposed to HB 1076. Those who testified in support of the bill referred to employers as “evil people,” he said, who did not allow employees to have breaks, among other things.

“I think it was very poor form for people to come in and blanketly accuse all employers of some really bad things,” Schoesler said.

There are already mechanisms in place for workers — like the state Department of Labor and Industries — if their employers do not treat them properly. HB 1076 “enriches the trial lawyers,” and harms employers, Schoesler said.

HB 1076 passed the House in a 53-44 vote March 5 and is moving ahead in the Senate.

Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, political director at the Fair Work Center, said many employees have contacted his organization about being made to work off the clock and having to work in unsafe conditions.

“We know that these … concerns have increased since the (COVID-19) pandemic began,” Quiñonez Figueroa said.

Fair Work Center is a non-profit organization based in Seattle that “empowers workers to achieve fair employment,” according to the organization’s website. The organization provides public resources outlining employee rights.

Although the state has been improving its labor standards over the years, many workers still face significant barriers, Quiñonez Figueroa said. HB 1076 can help by enforcing workers’ rights, he said.

Bruce Beckett, a lobbyist for the Washington Retail Association, said HB 1076 might harm small businesses even further. The bill would remind businesses are at risk of facing lawsuits or “frivolous claims,” he said.

“(The bill) doesn’t solve any problems,” Beckett said. “It opens the door to new lawsuits, (and) it’ll hinder getting our people back to work.”

Shellea Allen, co-president of Pride at Work, said many workers have been fired, demoted or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Even if there are laws on the books protecting workers, there is “no capacity for enforcement,” Allen said. HB 1076 would give workers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ, another avenue to enforce anti-discrimination laws, she said.

Pride at Work is a non-profit, national organization that “represents LGBTQ union members and their allies,” according to the organization’s website. Washington has two chapters; one in Seattle and another in Tacoma.