STL Post-Dispatch: Whistleblower protections would be restored under Missouri proposal that follows discrimination law

ST. LOUIS • Whistleblowers in Missouri’s public sector would get new safeguards under a proposal meant to undo one of the effects of a controversial discrimination law passed earlier this year.

Supporters say the safegards are necessary as a result of Senate Bill 43, which raises the bar for those suing for discrimination in Missouri. It took effect in August after being passed by the Republican controlled Legislature.

Republicans, including Gov. Eric Greitens, say the law simply brings Missouri in line with 38 other states and the federal government. In his statement after signing the bill, Greitens said the law would help “prevent trial lawyers from killing good jobs.” It’s one of several tort reforms Republicans hope will reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits that hurt businesses in the state.

 

Now, Missourians have to prove their race, sex or other protected status actually motivated their boss or colleague to mistreat them to win cases like wrongful termination suits. In the past, they only needed to prove their status was a “contributing factor.”

That aspect of the bill got the most attention during the most recent legislative session, particularly among civil rights groups, with the NAACP going so far as to issue a travel advisory in Missouri.

Lost in the shuffle was the removal of legal protections for whistleblowers, argues Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway. She cited investigations launched by state lawmakers into the Department of Corrections, after reports exposed a culture of harassment and retaliation in Missouri prisons. The state has paid millions in damages to corrections employees who came forward and shared experiences of being harassed because of sex, religion, race or disability, and being retaliated against for speaking out.

 

Without safeguards to prevent retaliation or the firing of whistle-blowers, fewer will be willing to come forward, for fear of losing their jobs, she told reporters in St. Louis on Monday.

“We don’t want to perpetuate bad behavior by sweeping it under the rug,” said state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill Galloway is lobbying for. The proposal lays out damages whistleblowers can receive for retaliation or wrongful termination, and requires Missouri’s public employers to prove disciplinary actions taken against whistleblowers were not the result of their reports of wrongdoing.

 

Tackling the whistleblower issue in its own, separate from other contentious aspects of the original discrimination bill, will make the measure’s passage more likely, Galloway said.

“By separating this portion out and addressing it alone, I think that we will see bipartisan support,” Galloway said. “It’s going to cost legislators’ constituents money by not being able to blow the whistle on bad activity in government.”

Additionally, the bill prohibits the use of nondisclosure agreements, or gag orders, when a settlement is made by the state.

“In the last six years, taxpayers have paid out $9 million because of discrimination and harassment claims made against the state. With nondisclosure agreements, that means folks cannot talk about their stories,” Galloway said. “In the workplace, if you cannot share what happened, or you’re prevented from telling what happened, it allows bad workplace culture to continue on, and bad things to happen to others … at the taxpayers’ expense.”

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