Truck driver John Simon blew the whistle on safety violations, and it cost him his job.
Over the next three years, he often thought about how much easier life would be if, rather than decide to stand and fight, he’d simply walked away. In the end, he was vindicated — by a ruling that his employer had violated his right to report a public safety hazard. Still, he was unprepared for the isolation, anxiety, and financial strain that come with the territory. Even in victory Simon, like many other whistleblowers, was doubtful he’d do it again.
Simon, now 43, was hired by a trucking firm near Chicago in late 2004 to haul jet fuel to airports in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. He got off to a bad start by objecting to an order to not log his hours behind the wheel, contrary to rules aimed at keeping exhausted drivers off the road.
“I told them verbally and in writing that I’m not going to break the law for a job,” Simon recalled.
He also complained to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates commercial trucking. Following a compliance check, the agency cited Simon’s employer, Sancken Trucking Inc., for breaking rules on driver logs and imposed $2,620 in penalties, records show. Simon was fired on March 11, 2005, the day after regulators informed Sancken of its unsatisfactory rating.
Simon filed a whistleblower complaint under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act. The law bars retaliation against trucking industry employees for reporting violations or refusing to drive an unsafe vehicle. His complaint went to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces whistleblower provisions of the trucking statute and 16 other federal laws.
Sancken denied Simon’s firing was retaliatory, claiming it happened because he failed to show up for a scheduled shift. Though the safety citation and firing were almost simultaneous, OSHA’s area office in Chicago agreed with Sancken and dismissed the complaint. Simon filed an appeal, and settled in for a long wait.
Meantime, he struggled to keep up his morale in the face of unemployment, the near loss of his house to foreclosure, and an uncomfortable chill in the air of his home town of Lake Villa, Ill. There were hurtful rumors “that I was a narc, I was someone you couldn’t trust,” Simon recalled. “There were a lot of things said for me doing what I did. I didn’t think what I did was wrong, but…it was more of a black mark than a good mark.”
He remembered someone saying: “ ‘What you did was the gutsiest thing, but you will never have a job around here again.’ ”
Simon did find work about 40 miles away, and things went well for a time. That suddenly changed when the new boss learned what had happened at Sancken, and considered it unpardonable. “It’s such a small world up here,” remarked Simon, who was out of a job once more.
In January, 2006, an administrative law judge ruled that Simon’s employer had violated his rights, contrary to OSHA’s finding. The ruling said Simon should be reinstated, given $18,855.82 in back pay plus interest, awarded $5,000 for emotional distress, and that unfavorable information be purged from his personnel file.
Still, the case was far from over. Sancken bumped it up a rung to the Administrative Review Board, a higher labor department tribunal. Nearly two years passed before the review board in November 2007 affirmed the ruling in Simon’s favor.
The battle could have stretched additional months or years had Sancken elected to take the matter to federal court. Simon said he couldn’t discuss the details of what happened next. “What I will tell you is the matter has been resolved and John has moved on,” his lawyer Paul O. Taylor said.
Taylor, who specializes in representing whistleblowers, said they are so battered by the process that “most of the time, when I have a client who wins, they wish they’d never gone through it.”
Simon has left trucking for a new trade as a self-employed farrier (a person who shoes horses). It still grates on him that OSHA found no connection between his whistleblowing and the loss of his job. “Why would anybody call OSHA for protection when they’re going to dismiss your case no matter what the evidence shows?” he asked.
“The procedures that they have in place are going to put you living under a bridge,” he said. “There was nothing pleasant about it. It ruined my life for years, and all I didn’t want to do is break the law.”