I was disheartened to hear recently of an airline mechanic who was fired from his job for reporting safety violations. Of course, no one should ever be fired for reporting safety problems. But if they are, they should at least know what their rights are. In this case, it was particularly disturbing that the mechanic had never heard of the federal law that protects him and other airline mechanics – Parts 121 and 135 - from retaliation for filing safety complaints with their employer or the government. The law, known as Air21 for short (its full title is the Wendell H. Ford Aviation and Reform Act for the 21st Century), also protects employees at airline contractors – like repair stations - and their subcontractors that perform safety-sensitive functions.
Air21 specifically prohibits retaliation against these employees for providing information to their employers or the government of safety violations; that is violations that relate to air carrier safety laws or regulations. Retaliation can mean many things, the most common would include disciplinary actions ranging from reprimands to outright firing. But retaliation could also include denial of overtime or promotion, intimidation, threats, reassignments and other negative actions against the employee.
At the time the law was drafted, one of the Senators who sponsored the legislation made clear the purpose of the law: “…airline employees are in the best position to recognize breaches in safety and can be the critical link in ensuring safer air travel…Aviation employees perform an important public service when they choose to report safety concerns. No employee should be put in the position of having to choose between his or her job and reporting violations that threaten the safety of passengers and crew.”
But to take advantage of the law’s protections, mechanics need to be aware that they’re covered. And that there are very tight time limits for filing for protection – 90 days from the retaliatory conduct. So in this particular airline mechanic’s case, 90 days from when he was fired. Complaints are filed with OSHA and the website for more information is http://www.whistleblowers.gov/index.html.
While you could file a complaint without an attorney, I would strongly suggest that anyone who feels they were retaliated against for making a safety complaint seek the advice of an employment lawyer. Most lawyers give free or relatively inexpensive initial consultations. Which I think is worth getting. Laws are complicated and you want to make sure that your complaint is going to meet the law’s requirements. If you are a union member, your union should be able to direct you to a union attorney to assist you.
While Air21 protections would only apply to airline mechanics or mechanics at airline contractors, a number of states have their own whistleblower protection statutes that could cover corporate or GA mechanics. And, those state laws, in at least some instances provide better protection and better remedies than Air21. Another reason to get good counsel before deciding how to proceed. Just remember that there are important legal time limits that you don’t want to miss.