Contentious bill expanding whistleblower protections passes in spite of business pushback

A bill codifying whistleblower protections in state law passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Friday, but still faces opposition from Republican lawmakers and business groups. 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), AB222 aims to expand existing protections for “whistleblower” employees from retaliation by their employer in cases of reporting illegal or unsafe workplace conditions to a supervisor or employer, instead of solely having those protections when they report to a government entity such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

On Friday, committee members voted 4-3 to pass the measure with the promise that another amendment will be filed prior to a floor vote. The bill previously passed out of the Assembly on a party-line 26-16 vote in April.

Torres said the bill would resolve the issue of employees being too afraid to talk to a supervisor if something doesn’t seem right, and encourage employees and employers to have open conversations. 

As it currently stands, if an employee feels unsafe at work and reports the issue to an external authority such as OSHA or the state Labor Commissioner's Office, they are guaranteed whistleblower protections — but the protection is not guaranteed to employees who report issues to a supervisor or other authority within their place of employment. 

“I just want to make it abundantly clear that this piece of legislation is aimed at targeting bad actors. So this is not going to just impact your business who lets go of somebody because they have proof that the individual has been taking extended lunches or something like that. It doesn't prevent that,” Torres said at an earlier committee hearing in May. 

The bill would codify whistleblower protections for employees as interpreted by the Nevada Supreme Court and established after the 1989 Wiltsie v. Baby Grand Corp. case. The Supreme Court determined that an employer violates the protections of a “whistleblower” if the employer terminates them because the employee reported to an external authority, but ruled that the protections do not extend to a whistleblower who reports such conduct only to a supervisor or other person within the employer’s organization.

But those in opposition say the bill would create an incentive for unhappy employees to create problems and file lawsuits against their employers. Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) also said the bill goes against the “interests of private industry.”

“I'd be perfectly okay with this bill, but this goes so much farther ... in the mind of those that I spoke to, it creates a definite incentive for disgruntled employees to really create havoc in business,” Pickard said during the bill’s committee vote on Friday. “Although they may be relatively small in number, it's going to affect whatever the prices are that that business has to charge … If that amendment comes through and softens the harshness of this, I might vote yes on the floor.”

In previous hearings, Clark County, the Vegas Chamber, the Henderson Chamber, the Nevada Resort Association, the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Association of Nevada and the Associated General Contractors Nevada Chapter all testified in opposition of the bill,  arguing that the measure is too broad and current law is sufficient.

Since it was introduced in March, the bill has been amended several times, including to remove a section that would have allowed courts to award costs and attorney’s fees to an employee involved in a lawsuit. 

Another amendment removes language authorizing an employee who experienced “unlawful employment practices” and brought a civil action against the employer to obtain damages equal to the amount of the lost wages and benefits. However, the employee is still able to bring the suit for any future compensatory damages, which would have to be shown in court.

The bill now heads to the full Senate, where it will have to pass before the May 21 deadline for second house passage. Torres said she would continue to work on an amendment with interested parties to resolve any lingering issues. 

“While the amendment is not ready today, I know that we are close to finding some type of agreement between ourselves and other key stakeholders and I'm confident that we will be able to get many of our stakeholders to neutral with that language,” she said. “This really empowers the employer to have conversations with their team about safety and deal with issues in house, it prevents accidents since employees feel confident talking to employers about unsafe working environments.”