Department of Energy

Protecting Whistleblowers at the Department of Energy

August 4, 2016

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Employees and contractors are at the heart of the Department of Energy's mission areas -- and the Department is committed to protecting them against retaliation for raising concerns about health, safety and management issues. |  Energy Department file photo.

Employees and contractors are at the heart of the Department of Energy's mission areas -- and the Department is committed to protecting them against retaliation for raising concerns about health, safety and management issues. | Energy Department file photo.

At the Department of Energy, our employees -- as well as workers who are employed by our contractor companies -- work with some of the most complex machinery and dangerous materials on Earth. From nuclear waste to lasers to particle accelerators, our workers’ activities require vigilant safety and communication.

That’s why the Department has gone to great lengths to ensure that employees can raise concerns about health, safety and management issues without fear of retaliation. Because we believe our mission is best served by a culture where employees are confident their concerns will be heard and that they will not be punished for raising them.

In fact, we have established an Employee Concerns Program for both federal and contractor employees, so they can address their concerns in a comfortable forum. And employees are of course protected by laws, regulations and even contracts that we sign explicitly prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers.

Today, I am announcing two additional steps that will build upon our ongoing efforts.

The first is detailed guidance to our personnel responsible for entering into and administering contracts that makes it clear if and when the Department will reimburse legal costs in whistleblower cases. The guidance instructs that a primary consideration for whether one of our contracting companies can be reimbursed in such a case is whether the company in fact retaliated against a whistleblower. Just because a company prevails in their defense does not necessarily mean they will be entitled to reimbursement costs.

Second, the Department is publishing a proposed rule clarifying that the Department can assess civil penalties against contractors and subcontractors for retaliating against any employee who raises concerns relating to nuclear safety. 

Going forward, if a contractor employee calls attention to a radiation hazard that is in violation of a nuclear safety requirement and the contractor retaliates against the employee for raising the issue, the contractor may be subject to a civil penalty for creating the radiation hazard and the contractor may have to compensate the employee for the retaliation. With this new proposed rulemaking, the Department would be empowered to impose an additional civil penalty against the contractor for the retaliation itself.

[DOWNLOAD THE ENERGY DEPARTMENT'S ACQUISITION LETTER AND NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING TO LEARN MORE.]

These two steps add to others the Department has already taken in recent years to strengthen protections for employees that raise concerns.

Along with our existing regulations and specific prohibitions against retaliation in contracts, we have robust procedures in place for the investigation of whistleblower claims when employees believe they have been mistreated for raising issues. In cases where an employer can be shown to have retaliated against whistleblowers, Department regulations allow for reinstatement, backpay and reimbursement of reasonable costs such as attorneys’ fees.  

And we have committed to strengthening further our Employee Concerns Program, with the aim of providing an alternative for employees to be heard when they are unable to talk to their supervisors or otherwise find that traditional methods won’t work. We will ensure that the Employee Concerns Program is independent and free from conflicts of interest.

Secretary Moniz has repeatedly emphasized the importance of fostering a strong and inclusive safety culture. Under his leadership and direction, the Department has redoubled our efforts to implement the Whistleblower Protection Pilot Program by modifying major contracts to make that Program applicable to more contractors.

An open and inclusive culture that prioritizes safety and management excellence is essential to protect our workers and taxpayers alike. Today’s actions will further institutionalize our considerable efforts to ensure that all employees can raise safety and management concerns without fear of retaliation.