STLtoday: Government workers in Missouri get some whistleblower protection restored

A year after Missouri was put in the national spotlight by a Republican-led effort to make it harder to prove discrimination, a new state law will roll back one of the provisions.

As part of last-minute negotiations during the Legislature’s spring session, a Democrat-sponsored bill to shield government workers from retaliation was added to a larger measure that deals with the hiring and firing of state employees.

Before leaving office on June 1, former Gov. Eric Greitens signed the legislation into law.

The original law, approved in 2017, raised the legal standard for proving discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations. The law was hailed by groups like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry as a way to reduce lawsuits and boost the state’s legal climate for businesses.

But other organizations said the law would make it more difficult for victims of discrimination to get justice.

Because of the change, St. Louis was suspended from a federal program to help low-income citizens afford housing. The state stands to lose about half a million dollars in federal assistance.

The Missouri NAACP highlighted the law, which went into effect last August, when it issued a controversial a travel advisory warning visitors to the state of the changes.

This year’s rollback, sponsored by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, would undo a portion of the law that took away whistleblower protections. It also would shield all public employees from retaliation, not just state workers.

Supporters say that without protections, whistleblowers are less likely to come forward for fear of retaliation.

“We wanted to make sure when there is corruption or fraud or waste of taxpayer dollars, that people who work in the government can call those out and draw attention to the issue and that they are not going to be fired or disciplined for that,” said Schupp.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who championed the rollback, said the change will bolster the ability to uncover improper or illegal uses of taxpayer dollars.

“Legislators from both sides of the aisle recognized this measure makes government more accountable and helps to root out waste, fraud and abuse,” Galloway said.

The new law prohibits state agencies from requiring workers to sign confidentiality agreements, or gag orders, if they settle legal disputes. It also requires public employers to prove disciplinary action against staff was not done in retaliation.

The law includes prosecutors, law enforcement, the news media and the public as people or entities to whom employees could report wrongdoing.

The legislation is Senate Bill 1007.

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