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North Star violated whistleblower's rights, according to OSHA

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times

Youth behavioral treatment center North Star Behavioral Health System was found by a federal regulatory agency to have violated a worker's rights by firing him for blowing the whistle on the water system at its Palmer facility, about 45 miles from Anchorage.

North Star is a subsidiary of the giant private hospital company United Services, Inc. It was ordered by U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to rehire the employee --whose name was withheld by OSHA -- to his or her former position immediately. It also ordered North Star to pay more than $212,000 in fines to the worker, including lawyer's fees.

North Star disputes the findings. "We intend to appeal the decision based on a continued belief that the organization's conduct was appropriate and proper," CEO Andy Mayo said in a statement.

According to OSHA, the worker was fired after reporting safety concerns about compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The worker was concerned about the facility's drinking water, and other safety issues including the lack of appropriate licensing for a North Star manager, as well as lack of proper safety equipment.

"In retaliation for reporting the safety concerns to state agencies, the employer disciplined the complainant, ordered him to refrain from future contact with regulatory agencies and then fired him for allegedly sabotaging the facility's water supply," the OSHA investigation found.

OSHA doesn't have jurisdiction over the Safe Water Act, but it is charged with investigating those who allege workplace wrong-doing as reprisal for alleging Safe Water Act violations.

North Star runs two facilities, one in Anchorage and one in Palmer. The Palmer center houses about 30 boys between the ages of 11 to 17. About 50 workers are employed at the facility. It's licensed by the state of Alaska. The worker-turned-whistleblower had been at the Palmer facility since 2004, eventually assuming a role as the facility's primary water system operator. His job reviews were excellent. He even received a reward for being employee of the year in 2007.

That was before he began to bring up safety concerns with his supervisor, according to the report.

The worker made numerous complaints to managers and agencies between 2007 and 2010, when he was fired. At least some of them were founded. For more than a year, his boss did not have the required license needed to work on the water system, for instance. The state of Alaska's arm of OSHA fined the facility $4,500 for 16 violations during one inspection, nine of which were labeled "serious." The company negotiated that fine down to $3,375.

In 2009, he began to file complaints about being a victim of a hostile work environment. The hostile environment worsened as time went on, the report said.

According to the report, Mayo, the CEO of North Star, was overheard saying, "If I could get rid of (the worker) I would." Even after receiving a copy of the complaint, Mayo wrote to OSHA, claiming that contacting a government agency eight days after an event was "unnecessary and inappropriate."

Finally, the worker's supervisor fired him, accused him of, among other things, "sabotaging" the facility's water supply after the worker contacted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, a state agency charged with safe drinking water.

DEC was not able to respond to a request for information about possible violations at the facility by the close of business. 

The OSHA investigation revealed that the sabotage allegation was false.

"Workers have the right to voice safety concerns without fear of retaliation or termination," said Dean Ikeda, OSHA's regional administrator in Seattle. "Employers found in violation of whistleblower protection provisions will be held accountable."

Since 2009, OSHA has received 29 Alaska-based whistleblower complaints, nine of which are settled and 13 of which are still open. "We try to settle complaints when we can" said Victoria Coleman, a supervisor investigator based out of Seattle.

She said that another complaint from another worker at North Star was settled.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com