Federal safety regulators have ordered an Iowa company to pay a former commercial driver $55,000 in back wages and damages for firing him after he refused to drive a tractor-trailer truck that had been pulled out of service for safety reasons.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said that Jake Rieger Farms, a Nebraska company, violated federal whistleblower protections that shield workers from retaliation when they complain about matters of personal safety or refuse to work under unsafe conditions.
OSHA said that on Jan. 16, 2015, Iowa commercial motor vehicle enforcement stopped and ticketed the driver of a Jake Rieger tractor-trailer truck for operating an unsafe vehicle and for lacking proper state registration.
Authorities directed the driver to a repair shop for maintenance work and repairs to bring the tractor trailer up to code. The driver then contacted his employer and returned to Nebraska.
An OSHA investigation found that less than a week later, a co-worker drove the employee back to the repair shop in Iowa to retrieve the truck. Jake Rieger Farms ordered the employee to drive the vehicle, which still lacked the proper registration, back to Nebraska, telling him to start the trip after law enforcement personnel left the area.
When the driver refused to drive illegally, the company immediately terminated him and forced him to find his own transportation home to Nebraska, a distance of about 170 miles.
OSHA has now ordered Jake Rieger Farms to pay the driver $25,000 in punitive damages and $30,000 in compensatory damages, which includes back wages, repayment for Iowa DOT-tickets paid out of pocket by the driver, attorney fees, transportation back to Nebraska, and compensation for distress.
A number of federal statutes bar employers from retaliating against employees who raise various “protected” concerns or voice complaints about safety, fraud, and other issues to the employer or the government.
“No worker should face termination for complying with federal laws which protect the safety of the motoring public,” said Marcia Drumm, OSHA’s regional administrator in Kansas City. “In this case, Jake Rieger Farms retaliated against an employee who refused to drive a truck that Iowa law enforcement deemed unsafe. His employer fired him on the spot and left him to find his way home to Nebraska. OSHA is committed to protecting the rights of any worker to refuse unsafe and unlawful orders from their employer.”