First responders and correctional employees aren’t immune from retaliation from their employers when they turn in work injuries for the unique hazards that they face. However, most first responders, law enforcement and corrections employees have some additional job protections against retaliation. This post is meant to give first responders, law enforcement and corrections employees a basic overview of the job protections they have as union and public sector employees. Those rights can be summed up in three words: Weingarten, Garrity and Loudermill.
Weingarten rights are named after the Supreme Court decision that holds that union members have a right to have a union official present in a disciplinary meeting with supervisors or a meeting that could lead to discipline. Though Weingarten doesn’t apply to public sector unions, most public sector unions, including NAPE/AFSCME in Nebraska, make Weingarten rights part of their collective bargaining agreement.
Weingarten rights can be trampled on when aggressive employers claim they just want to talk to employees rather than subject employees to the third degree. This can be especially prevalent in corrections and law enforcement where supervisors are trained in interrogation techniques.
If you have been subject to an interrogation like this, you need to let your union representative know right away.
Garrity rights give public sector employees, regardless of whether they are in a union or not, the right to not incriminate themselves in an investigation that could lead to discipline. Employers will give a Garrity warning similar to a Miranda-type warning. In my experience, Garrity rights can be a bit dubious. Employee misconduct that would justify termination doesn’t always rise to the level of anything remotely illegal. This is especially true if an employer is trying to manufacture evidence to retaliate against a worker. But under Garrity, an employee can be terminated for refusing to answer questions. So employees may feel compelled to answer hours of questions from trained law enforcement officials for alleged misconduct that, even if true, would not rise to anything illegal. This can be a dangerous proposition because such questioning may create the appearance of dishonesty on the part of the employee. Especially in the context of law enforcement or corrections, dishonesty can be a factor that allows an employer to skip the normal progressive disciplinary procedures.
Again, employees should reach out to their union representative if they are faced with this situation.
Loudermill rights compel public employers to give some explanation of why they are terminating an employee and give the employee some opportunity to explain why she or he should not be terminated. (7) Loudermill applies to all government employees, not just union employees. Though Loudermill gives additional protections to what typical at-will employees have, in substance, Loudermill doesn’t afford a lot of protections. In many cases, the decision to terminate has already been made, and feedback from an employee may harm the employee’s chances of winning at a personnel board, arbitration or a wrongful-termination case.
Again, employees should be reaching out to their union representative if they are subject to what is called a Loudermill hearing.
Personnel Board and Arbitration Hearings
Government employees can usually appeal terminations to a personnel board, such as the Nebraska State Personnel Board, or have a termination heard by an arbitrator if the worker is represented by a private union. These hearings are easier for employees to win than wrongful termination cases because generally the employer has the burden to show there was just cause to terminate the employee. In civil court, the employee has the burden of proof that the termination was unlawful. Those hearings can also generate evidence that can be helpful in wrongful termination cases. In many cases, the union will pick up the cost of a personnel board hearing or arbitration.
This post has repeatedly mentioned the importance of involving a union representative and the benefits to employees of a union contract. Nebraska is what is called a “right-to-work state,” which means that employees covered under a union contract cannot be forced to pay union dues. However, if workers do not pay dues, unions may not have the resources needed to fight for their members. The opinion of this firm is that unions in Nebraska, like NAPE/AFSCME, do a good job of fighting for their members, so we would encourage public employees in Nebraska to pay their union dues.