New law prohibits employers from using
immigration status against whistle blowers
Rep. David Morales, far right, is joined by advocates for the bill along with (from left) Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Cynthia A. Coyne, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, Gov. Daniel McKee (seated) and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi. Sen. Meghan Kallman was unable to attend.
STATE HOUSE – Legislation sponsored by Rep. David Morales and Sen. Meghan E. Kallman was ceremonially signed into law yesterday to prohibit employers from reporting or threatening to report an employee’s immigration status for whistle-blowing.
The legislation (2021-H 5855, 2021-S 0550), signed by Gov. Daniel McKee yesterday in a ceremony with the sponsors, amends the Rhode Island Whistle Blowers Protection Act by adding reporting or threatening to report immigration status to the list of actions — along with termination, threatening, cutting pay and other penalization — that employers cannot take against an employee who either has reported wrongdoing or could do so.
“All our workers deserve the right to report misconduct and workplace violations, such as wage theft or safety hazards, without the fear of retaliation, regardless of their immigration status. Unfortunately, there are some malicious employers who wield the threat of deportation or fear as a powerful weapon to abuse employees and freely break the law with impunity. This is exactly why I introduced this bill, because all too often labor union representatives, labor law enforcement agencies and community-based worker centers have reported that there are workers who are victims or witnesses of workplace fraud but are unwilling to cooperate or talk about their mistreatment because they fear that their employer will report them to an immigration enforcement agency, even if they are a ‘legal’ immigrant resident. Therefore, our state must recognize these threats concerning immigration status the same way we recognize other threats and abuses that are used to keep workers from reporting workplace violations,” said Representative Morales (D-Dist. 7, Providence).
Said Senator Kallman (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence), “Unfortunately, there are employers who hire people who are undocumented primarily because they can get away with abusing them, cutting corners and breaking laws because those employees do not want any involvement with authorities. With this legislation, we’re rejecting that as the illegal and immoral business plan that it is, while standing up for the rights, safety and dignity of all employees.”
In addition to prohibiting employers from retaliating against whistle blowers in this manner, the bill increases the civil relief available under the Whistle Blower Protection Act, allowing victims to seek triple the amount of their damages as a means to provide a stronger disincentive for employers to retaliate or threaten employees.
The sponsors point out that the new law, which takes effect immediately, offers greater protection to all employees and the public, because it makes it more likely that unsafe or illegal workplace activities will be appropriately reported.
The bill was supported by Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Working Families Party, Black Lives Matter RI PAC, the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 99 and Carpenters Union Local 330. Supporters testified that the lack of such protection for immigrant workers has created a culture of fear has kept them — even those who have legal status — from reporting criminal activity at work or cooperating with investigations into it.