The process of filing whistleblower complaints is about to get a lot easier. On July 26, 2013, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is one of the offices within the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, approved a form that will allow workers and their union representatives to file online retaliation complaints under any of the 22 whistleblower statutes administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has not yet indicated when it will make the form available for use on its website.
OSHA currently accepts whistleblower complaints made orally or in writing, even though its own regulations require that certain complaints be made in writing. OSHA intends the online form to ease the filing process even further, as it “will enable workers to electronically submit whistleblower complaints directly to OSHA 24-hours a day, which will provide workers with greater flexibility for meeting statutory filing deadlines.” Additionally, the form allows complainants to allege protected activity and adverse employment action merely by clicking boxes—some with designations as vague as “Participated in Safety and Health Activities” and “Harassment.”
It’s unclear from OSHA’s case tracking statistics why the agency perceives a need for relaxed case filing procedures. The number of whistleblower complaints processed by OSHA has skyrocketed in recent years—from 1,947 cases completed in 2011 to 2,764 cases completed in 2012—but there has been no commensurate improvement in the quality of the cases filed. The number of merit determinations actually decreased from 48 in 2011 to 45 in 2012, and the number of dismissed cases rose from 1,108 in 2011 to 1,660 in 2012. If anything, online filing promises to increase the burden on investigators already suffering under excessive caseloads.
Christopher E. Humber is a shareholder in the Washington, D.C. office of Ogletree Deakins.