Fighting Retaliation, Airport Worker Wins Job Back

November 30, 2016

This past June, airport cleaning workers and wheelchair attendants stood before the MassPort Board of Directors sharing stories of becoming sick and injured from exposure to toxic chemicals and other job hazards, and urging the agency to insist that their employers provide safe work conditions. But for MassCOSH Labor-Environment Coordinator Tolle Graham, it was the testimony of Malika Iarab that made her realize MassCOSH could help Iarab save her job.
“I was just doing my job, accompanying a customer in a wheelchair to get their baggage,” Iarab testified. “A piece of metal strapping that became detached at the base of the carousel caught my foot and caused me to stumble. I was caught by a co-worker, but wrenched my left shoulder and knee. The day after I showed my supervisor the hazard, I was told I needed to take a drug test. Even though I came to the airport on my day off, asking a neighbor to watch my daughter, the drug test company never showed up. Because I left after waiting several hours in order to pick up my daughter, I was fired.”
Knowing that Iarab had just 30 days after being fired to lodge an OSHA retaliation complaint,
Graham immediately reached out to an organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ, the union that was supporting the workers.

Together, MassCOSH and 32BJ documented Iarab’s story and filed an OSHA whistleblower complaint – known as “11(c),” for a corresponding section of the federal law – while exploring ways to escalate the pressure if her employer refused to respond. Within two weeks, Iarab was returned to her job with back pay.
“It makes me angry when workers bravely speak up about health and safety and their reward is dismissal,” said Yusuf Farah, the 32BJ Organizer. “I’m very happy that Malika was restored to her much-deserved workplace but [I] never want other workers to have to go through the anxiety of not knowing if you are going to have a job.”
Unfortunately, Iarab’s situation is far from unique. Distraught workers often call MassCOSH after suffering an injury, saying their employer had reduced their hours or fired them instead of providing a safe workplace. Increasingly, employers are also using drug testing as a form of intimidation when workers advocate for their rights, hoping the test will deter them from taking further action.
Though OSHA 11(c) scared Iarab’s employer into doing the right thing, advocates argue that the protection is deeply flawed. The reporting timeframe for 11(c) is just 30 days and, too often, 11c claims are dismissed because OSHA determines that the agency lacks sufficient evidence to proceed.
“We need to overhaul OSHA 11(c) to allow for a sufficient window to report incidences and to give it enough teeth to protect the worker,” said Graham. “In the meantime, MassCOSH will continue to help workers use it as one tool in the organizing toolbox, along with other pressures that help ensure that workers can assert their right to speak up about health and safety.”