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Texas church must pay over $30K for firing whistleblower

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The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration ordered a Texas church to pay more than $30,000 in damages for firing a whistleblower.

OSHA concluded that New Mount Zion Baptist Church of Dallas wrongfully fired a nutrition specialist in 2021 for voicing concerns about the conditions at the congregation’s child care facility.

These concerns included reports of rodents and various bugs in the cafeteria and the kitchen of the child care facility, made worse by a broken air conditioning unit. 

In a findings report and preliminary order issued earlier this week, OSHA said that New Mount Zion Baptist owes the whistleblower back pay in the amount of $11,369.76, as well as $20,000 for additional damages, including “for pain and suffering, including emotional, financial, and mental distress.”

Additionally, the church is ordered to “make no negative references relating to the facts and circumstances of this complaint to any prospective future employers” and cannot “retaliate or discriminate against Complainant in any manner for instituting or causing to be instituted any proceeding.”

OSHA Regional Administrator Eric S. Harbin said in a statement Thursday that “New Mount Zion Baptist Church’s actions toward the employee are unacceptable and deeply concerning.”

“The existence of rodents and insects in food preparation and serving areas poses a health hazard. The employee had the legal right to express apprehensions about the unhygienic surroundings and should not have been fired for doing so,” Harbin stated.

The church has 30 days from the order’s issuance to file an objection or request a hearing before the preliminary order becomes finalized.

In May 2021, the whistleblower — who remained unnamed in official documents — was hired by the day care facility as a nutrition specialist, with a base salary of $560 a week.

Soon after being hired, the specialist discovered spiders and insects in food preparation areas. Also, during this time, the air conditioning unit failed and was not fixed until July. While the unit was not working, temperatures in food preparation areas were “very high,” which jeopardized the quality of food served to the children.

While the air conditioning unit was being fixed in July, the complainant discovered an infestation of rats, roaches and rat feces in the kitchen. 

“Despite positive feedback for his work and no disciplinary actions, shortly after Complinanant began reporting food safety concerns, Complainant was issued two incident/observation letters,” the OSHA findings state. 

The first came in June 2021 after he complained about the spiders and malfunctioning air conditioning unit, alleging that the complainant violated the dress code by wearing pants that did not cover the knees. The complainant denied the allegations, saying he wore pants that covered the knees and that there was no written dress code policy at the time. Over a week later, a second letter was issued after a staff member observed the complainant lying on a couch.

In August of 2021, the complainant found another rat infestation in the cafeteria near children’s sleeping cots. He took pictures and reported them to local authorities. Inspectors were then sent to analyze the building but could not substantiate the complaints. On August 26, a special board meeting was held where the board voted to terminate the complainant.

OSHA contends that the whistleblower’s activities were protected. The church alleges that it discharged the whistleblower because he engaged in disrespectful behavior and insubordination, pointing to an incident where he failed to greet the pastor’s wife. 

“These stated reasons are not supported by the evidence and are not clear and convincing evidence that Respondent would have discharged Complainant absent his protected activity,” the OSHA report reads. 

OSHA ruled that the whistleblower is “entitled to preliminary reinstatement, back pay with interest, compensatory damages.”

“Complainant suffered personal humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional and financial distress when the Respondent terminated his employment,” OSHA stated.

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