Business community mixed on whistleblower legislation

RHODE ISLAND'S BUSINESS community has mixed feelings about passage of the updated R.I. Whistleblowers' Protection Act. / PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

PROVIDENCE The Rhode Island business community has mixed feelings about passage of state legislation that provides protections for immigrant workers who report misconduct in the workplace. Businesses dislike the mandates in the legislation but say they are not opposed to the worker protections it provides.

Some employers could face legal retribution for unsafe or illegal workplace activities due to the legislation’s passage on July 1.

The legislation, which updated The R.I. Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, is aimed at businesses that hire undocumented workers, as well as workers who have undocumented family members, some who could have a pending immigration status.

The legislation amends the act by adding reporting, or threatening to report, immigration status to a list of actions, including termination and cutting pay, that employers cannot take against an employee who either has reported wrongdoing or could do so.

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It also increases the civil relief available under the act, allowing victims to seek triple the amount in damages to provide a stronger disincentive for employers to retaliate or threaten employees.

This legislation would expand whistleblower protections to job applicants and prospective employees.

The R.I. Business Coalition sent a letter to the House Committee on Labor, voicing opposition to the bill, claiming that it could force companies to violate federal work requirements when reporting immigration status. As a result, there could be consequences for employers with federal contracts who are unable to report misconduct per the legislation.

John Simmons, spokesman for the coalition, said the business community does not like the legislation’s mandates, although it supports protections for workers in the workplace. One problem, he said, is the federal requirement for disclosure of an employee’s immigration status.

There are some businesses that have to report an employee’s immigration status, he said. Others don’t. “Some have to because some of the federal contracts require only American citizens to work,” he said.

Simmons said employers will have to deal with the implications of being in violation of federal requirements. Those businesses could be subjected to liability, leading to damages that are mandated by the state through the passage of the legislation.

On the other hand, he said the coalition’s position is, “You can’t discriminate against someone because of their immigration status.”

Simmons said the legislation should not impact businesses that do not have federal contract requirements.

Rep. David Morales, D-Providence, who has family members who have been victims of abuses in the workplace, sponsored the legislation in the House. Sen. Meghan E. Kallman, D Pawtucket, sponsored companion legislation in the Senate.

Morales said businesses were worried they would violate federal law if a worker was undocumented. But, he said, that is not true because those individuals do not have the legal obligation to report someone. They have the legal right to fire someone who is undocumented but they are not required to report that person to an immigration agency.

Morales said that the legislation was born out of his lived experiences, and conversations with labor unions, workforce centers and workers.

“I have had family members who have had their immigration status used as a threat in the workplace,” said Morales, who noted that the legislation also applies to legal immigrants, who fear that action taken by an employer could impact their family members.

As for what the legislation will do in the workplace, Morales said there will be more compliance by employers regarding the treatment of workers.

“I think we will see safer work conditions when it comes to workplaces that are predominantly comprised of immigrant workers,” he said. “I want to make sure people understand how monumental this is, because with this law being passed we have some of the strongest whistleblower protections in the country.”

Dave Chenevert, executive director of the R.I. Manufacturers Association, said the legislation will not impact the state’s manufacturers, as it is an industry that doesn’t hire illegal immigrants.

“The industry goes through gyrations to make sure people are certified to be employed,” he said, noting that there are state and federal guidelines that the industry follows for its hiring practices. “So, it’s not going to impact us.”

Chenevert said that workers need to have identification so that companies can report an employee’s income. “I don’t see anyone in the industry hiring anyone who doesn’t have the proper credentials,” he said. “I don’t see it. I’ve never seen it.”

The state’s manufacturers have hired foreign workers who possess work visas and are allowed to work in the United States, he said. “The buck stops with the employer who is hiring – there are specific guidelines that need to be followed.”

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com.

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