The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an interim final rule and request for comments regarding procedures for handling employee whistleblower complaints under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Section 1558. This part of the ACA added a new Section 18c to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which protects employees from retaliation for exercising certain rights under the ACA, including (1) receiving a federal tax credit or subsidy to purchase insurance through the employer or a future health insurance exchange, (2) reporting a violation of consumer protection rules under the ACA (which, for instance, prohibit denial of health coverage based on preexisting conditions and lifetime limits on coverage), and (3) assisting or participating in a proceeding under Section 1558.
The interim final rule states the time frames and procedures for bringing a whistleblower complaint under Section 18c and covers the investigation, hearing, and appeals processes. An employee has 180 days from the date of the alleged retaliation to bring a whistleblower complaint to the Secretary of Labor. Where a violation is found, remedies can include reinstatement, compensatory damages, back pay, and reasonable costs and expenses (including attorneys’ fees). If the employee brought the complaint in bad faith, an employer may recover up to $1,000 in reasonable attorneys’ fees.
The bar for an employee bringing such a complaint is relatively low, and the bar for an employer defending against the complaint is relatively high. The employee must only have a subjective, good-faith, reasonable belief that the conduct alleged in the complaint violates the whistleblower protections; the employee need not prove that the conduct was an actual violation of law. The conduct complained of must only be a contributing factor in an adverse employment decision for the employee to make his or her case. The employer must then demonstrate through clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same adverse action without the protected activity.
Each party has 20 days after filing the complaint to submit a position statement and supporting documents, and can also request a meeting to present its position to OSHA. OSHA has 60 days from the filing of the complaint to investigate and issue written findings and, if a violation is found, a preliminary order providing relief to the employee. There is a process to challenge and appeal OSHA’s written findings and order. There is also a process for an employee to file a complaint in federal court either within 90 days after the employee receives OSHA’s findings, or if no final agency order is issued within 210 days of the filing of the complaint.
For more information, see the DOL fact sheet, which describes how to file a complaint. If you have comments on this interim final rule, they must be submitted within 60 days of the rule’s publication in the Federal Register (Feb. 27, 2013). Comments may be submitted electronically at the eRulemaking portal.