A bill introduced by three Democratic senators on Monday would expand protections for employees who raise concerns about health, safety, fraud and waste at America’s nuclear weapons facilities.
A recent audit found the Department of Energy had repeatedly failed to protect whistleblowers from intimidation and retaliation by its contractors at nuclear sites around the country.
Since the agency “won’t make the changes necessary to increase accountability and protect folks who raise concerns — we’re going to have to legislate those changes ourselves,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of the bill’s sponsors.
The bill would add disclosures about waste, fraud and abuse to the list of legally protected whistleblower activities at the DOE. For now, that list only covers disclosures about safety problems.
The bill also would change the DOE’s practice of using taxpayer dollars to cover its contractors’ legal costs when whistleblowers file complaints.
Instead, contractors would have to pay their own legal costs in wrongful termination cases unless the contractors could prove the DOE contributed to the retaliation.
And the bill would enable the Department of Labor to levy punitive damages against contractors who retaliated against whistleblowers.
Employees would have a year to file whistleblower complaints under the bill, rather than just six months allowed under current law. And if the DOE failed to complete its investigation within a year, employees would be allowed to seek jury trials in federal court.
McCaskill teamed up with Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Ed Markey of Massachusetts to draft the legislation, which the lawmakers filed on Monday.
In a Republican-controlled Senate, this Democratic bill isn’t likely to sail through the legislative process. But worker advocates welcomed it on Monday as an important move in the right direction.
“Workers are the early-warning systems that can avert future catastrophes, especially at DOE nuclear facilities,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group.
Under current law, the poor treatment of whistleblowers sends a message to all workers that contractors will severely punish those who speak up about safety, Carpenter said.
“This bill not only seeks to give DOE whistleblowers better remedies, but also holds contractors accountable and deters retaliation ... which enhances nuclear safety,” he said.