New Tool in the Federal Rail Safety Act Tool Belt
You won’t believe how the Labor Department has helped railroaders. Railroaders just got a new tool in their tool belt from the U.S. Department of Labor. A federal court tried to limit the types of injuries and illnesses protected by the Federal Rail Safety Act (“FRSA”), and excluded off-duty injuries and illnesses. The Labor Department decided not to listen and said that even off-duty injuries and illnesses are protected. This will be a great new tool for protecting employees from railroad retaliation.
The FRSA clearly protects employees who tell the railroad about their own (or a co-worker’s) on-duty injury or illness. It also clearly protects employees who follow their doctor’s orders related to an on-duty injury or illness. This can include doctor’s orders to take certain medications or to take time off work. Once an employee tells the railroad about their injury or the doctor’s orders, the railroad cannot punish the employee by suspending them, terminating them, or discriminating against them in any way.
In January 2015, the federal appeals court for the Third Circuit (which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) said that the FRSA does not protect employees for following doctor’s orders if the injury or illness occurred off-duty. The court said that only doctors’ orders that are triggered by on-duty injuries or illnesses are covered by the FRSA.
Thankfully, the Labor Department is still on the side of railroad workers. The Labor Department decides FRSA cases before they ever get to court, and it says that even a doctor’s orders for off-duty injuries or illnesses are covered.
The Labor Department said this in a case called Williams v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad Company. In the Williams case, a locomotive engineer was fired for absenteeism after his doctor told him to stay off work. The engineer suffered from anxiety and depression and was prescribed medication that precluded him from working. He told the railroad about his illness and his doctor’s orders, but they fired him anyway. The engineer’s doctor testified that if he worked it would be a “recipe for disaster” to other employees and the general public.
The Labor Department agreed, and said that a railroad cannot punish you for following your doctor’s orders, even if the injury or illness occurred off-duty and is not work-related. This way, you are not forced to choose between working while impaired and risking your job.
The final word on this issue may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Certainly, under the Trump Administration, there will be pressure placed on the Labor Department to reverse its position – but for now we have a good tool to protect employees from the often vindictive railroads.
If you should have any questions regarding a potential whistleblower case, please do not hesitate to contact our office for a consultation. Please visit our website at BermanAndDarby.com and download our railroad worker smart phone app.You can also reach us at 800-248-FELA.