COLUMBUS — A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to protect state workers who see wrongdoing in their workplaces and come forward.
Right now, a loophole in Ohio’s whistleblower law does not protect workers from retaliation by their bosses if they report noncriminal violations to Ohio’s inspector general.
House Bill 238, introduced by Reps. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, and Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, seeks to protect workers from firing or other punishment when they speak up about or refuse to take part in misconduct on the job.
Sixteen additional lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.
“I think taxpayers, no matter what party is in power, want to make sure they’re not getting ripped off,” Cera said. “They want people to come forward about unlawful activity or possible unlawful activity that they see.”
Scherer expressed optimism about the bill’s potential impact for Ohioans. “This bill will protect citizens who are willing to come forward and help keep our governing bodies and businesses accountable.”
The bill allows employees who observe or are pressured to participate in “a violation of a state or federal statute, rule, or regulation or the misuse of public resources” to file a report with the inspector general, which investigates alleged misconduct in executive agencies, state boards and commissions and public colleges and universities.
The bill’s provisions protect both public and private sector employees from several forms of retaliation, such as loss of earnings, if they lodge a formal complaint with the inspector general.
The Franklin County Court of Appeals ruled in 2014 that workers were protected if they filed a report about criminal conduct — but not noncriminal conduct. The court said workers had other avenues to report noncriminal offenses, including supervisors at their workplaces and the state internal audit office.
Inspector General Randall J. Meyer, who has tried for years to fix the impact of the court ruling, worked with the lawmakers on the bill. He applauded the bipartisanship behind the bill, which he anticipates will have an important impact.
“It’s probably the most well-rounded attempt we’ve had,” Meyer said. “I think it will likely increase some of the complaints we receive. We’ll find some folks that are employees that feel more confident in doing the right thing and coming forward.”
This is not the first effort to close the “loophole.” In late 2018, Cera and then-Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent, sponsored a similar bill with only Democratic co-sponsors. But, the GOP-controlled House took no action.
Cera attributes the death of the bill to timing. It was introduced late in the legislative term, often called a “lame duck” session, and coincided with Clyde’s run for secretary of state, which Cera said made the issue too political.
“My goal has always been to correct the problem,” he said. “In reintroducing the bill, I wanted to get a Republican partner and some Republican co-sponsors. We wanted to make sure that it didn’t get wrapped up in statewide politics and become a political issue.
“We wanted to make it a bipartisan issue because it shouldn’t be partisan. It‘s about good government and protecting people.”