New laws extend Pennsylvania whistleblower protections

Two laws signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett over the summer went into effect at the beginning of September. They extend the protections of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act to those who work for the General Assembly as well as nonprofits and private companies that receive public money.

Passed in 1986, the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act on its face had applied only to public sector employees. The Act prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating if an employee made a good faith report of wrongdoing or waste. Any violation of state, federal or local law, an ordinance, regulation or code of ethics is wrongdoing. Courts construed the definition of "employer" to include private entities that receive a substantial amount of funding from public sources.

Civil remedies such as an injunction or damages are available to an employee who suffers workplace retaliation, such as a termination following a report. Punitive damages and the right to a jury trial are not available under the law. An employer can defend against an action by arguing that a legitimate reason supported the action. Frequent warnings for poor job performance might be such an example.

Extension to some private sector employees

Originally, the Whistleblower Act did not apply to private sector employees, except if their employer received a substantial amount of funding from public sources, even if they were in a position to report abuse at a state agency. This will change under the new laws. State Senator Lisa Baker said the new laws will "extend coverage to two groups who are likely to be aware of wrongdoing but who are quite vulnerable to retaliation - the private contractors doing business with the state and the at-will employees who work for us and for the legislative agencies."

A scandal in Luzerne County underscored the need to extend protections. Various employees who were aware of corruption likely failed to come forward and report the wrongdoing for fear they would lose their jobs.

Strong whistleblower protections aid in transparent government and the legitimate use of public funds. The extension to employees of nonprofits also goes toward the goal of protecting taxpayer dollars from waste.

The Pennsylvania inspector general will have greater power to investigate whistleblower reports. The law also increases fines and penalties for violations.

Other types of whistleblower protections

Several federal laws also provide Whistleblower protections, including the Whistleblower Protection Act, Dodd-Frank Act and Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Some agencies also provide protections, but have specific reporting deadlines. For instance, an individual only has 30 to 180 days to report retaliation after a safety complaint filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It takes courage to report misconduct or wrongdoing at a workplace. With the many categories of whistleblower protection and different processes for filing complaints, it is always beneficial to seek the assistance of an experienced employment law attorney.