A new whistleblower bill, if passed, will allow state employees to file civil action lawsuits.
State Rep. Bobby Cleveland introduced legislation this week aimed at strengthening the rights of whistleblowers. HB 2528 amends current statutes to allow employees who’ve reported wrongdoings the right to file a civil action lawsuit against their former employers and coworkers. If prosecution is successful, the whistleblower would also be entitled to recover the full costs and attorney fees. Rep. Cleveland said the bill intends to give state employees more power after “listening to agency employees across the state express fear of retaliation,” adding, “I realized our current laws just aren’t enough.”
This provokes wonder: about just what kinds of affairs have state employees not come forward? If state employees fear retaliation, that not only means a hostile work environment, but it also means there are problems happening at work that supervisors know would likely be reported. It’s no secret that budget cuts have left many state agencies on the business end of austerity measures, often to the detriment of thousands of innocent Oklahomans. Budget cuts can drive departments to desperate measures.
Oklahoma currently has a record number of emergency teachers in schools across the state. Because the state education budget was slashed to pieces, school districts hire teachers who have the minimum amount of education, pay to take a quick little licensing exam and teach for an academic year on a short-run contract. They don’t even need to be schooled in the subject they teach. Then there’s the proposal of shortening the public school week to four days, an idea for which Governor Mary Fallin was publicly chastised at an event by a potential investor who said something along the lines of, “There’s no way I’d bring my business to Oklahoma; you all can’t even keep your schools open five days a week.”
There is also the ongoing scandal in the Department of Rehabilitation in which judges sent rehab patients to what amounted to a work camp program in which patients performed wage-free labor in exchange for staying out of jail. They were threatened with going to jail should they ever decide to not work. It all begs the question: just what else is out there? And more importantly, if the state legislature doesn’t pass a law designed to protect the state’s workers, just what kind of message does that send to the thousands of people on the state’s ever-shrinking payroll?
This bill’s passage could represent a watershed moment, much like the #MeToo campaign for sexual assault victims. If passed, Oklahoma could see whistleblowers coming from all sorts of places, hoping to shine a light on practices that have been kept as open secrets for years. Of course, it also means more lawsuits, more court costs and a burden on the legal system. But that’s what the legal system is for: protecting us, the citizens of this state. Any measure intended to protect the increasingly-ignored working class in this state only serves to help, if only the legislature will pass it.
Cleaning up state agencies could save the state thousands of dollars by streamlining departments and increasing efficiency. That is, if there’s anything to clean up. Perhaps there’s nothing shady happening and the whistleblower law would go largely unutilized.
However, if a state representative talked to workers across Oklahoma and they told him they felt “a fear of reprisal” if they reported something from work to law enforcement, that seems like a clear sign of a problem. Moreover, if the legislature doesn’t pass this bill, it will be one more failure to stack on all the rest, one more way our politicians in this state managed to silence the very people they claim to represent. If this bill does fail, no matter what kind of political reason that’s given, it’s a blatant slap in the face to all Oklahomans. Not only that, but it’s an indirect sign that our legislators don’t care to allow us to come forward about crimes with dignity. What does that say about the state of our democracy?
If passed, the bill takes effect on November 1 of this year.