Hanford whistleblowers awarded $216,000 in back pay, compensation

Two Hanford whistleblowers have been awarded back pay and compensation after they raised safety concerns related to a medical tracking system and then were laid off.
Two Hanford whistleblowers have been awarded back pay and compensation after they raised safety concerns related to a medical tracking system and then were laid off. Associated Press

Two Hanford whistleblowers have been awarded $216,000 in back pay and compensation, plus interest and attorney fees, after being suspended from their jobs by Computer Sciences Corp.

The decision by a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge followed a six-day trial in Kennewick that began in November after the company appealed an earlier decision.

The whistleblowers were represented by Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based worker advocacy group for the nuclear reservation, and an additional attorney.

Kirtley Clem and Matthew Spencer worked as computer specialists for Computer Sciences Corp., or CSC, in 2012 when the company held the occupational medicine contract for Hanford.

The two workers were suspended in September 2012 after they reported failures in a new electronic medical record system, including a problem tracking health risks for individual workers.

The problem created the potential for workers at risk for chronic beryllium disease to be exposed to the metal, despite medical restrictions that should have protected them.

CSC initially was ordered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to pay back wages of $186,000 to the two former workers in late 2014.

But after CSC appealed the order, a trial was scheduled.

Attorneys for Clem and Spencer made the case that they had repeatedly reported concerns about the new electronic medical record system at meetings with other employees providing occupational medicine services at Hanford, and to their supervisor and others in authority.

While I feel vindicated by this decision, I continue to be very disappointed in the DOE’s inadequate protections for whistleblowers.

Kirtley Clem, plaintiff

When problems with the system were not fixed, they took the matter to the Department of Energy Employee Concerns program.

Administrative law Judge Christopher Larsen wrote in his decision that the two employees were told by one CSC official to stop discussing the issue at staff meetings and that another official grew tired of hearing about the issues.

Yet, the judge found that the failure of the medical record software clearly could jeopardize worker safety and that CSC officials acknowledged that. The system was put into use despite concerns.

When the employees were suspended, they were told they had been accused of sharing confidential information with a competitor.

They were accused of colluding with HPM, then a small business subcontractor to CSC. Employees of the two companies worked closely together.

CSC owned AdvanceMed Hanford, the former occupational medicine services provider at Hanford. Its contract expired at the end of September 2012, which was after employees raised the concern, and it could not bid on the new contract, which was reserved for a small business.

The two companies apparently decided in 2010 to resolve the problem by switching roles, the judge wrote in his decision.

HPM Corp. was awarded the new contract, but it retained CSC as a subcontractor.

Hanford Challenge pointed out the trial judge characterized some of CSC’s arguments as “an astonishing display of chutzpah.”

At trial, CSC could not say exactly what information Clem and Spencer allegedly had passed on or show that they had specific information to provide, the judge said.

Whatever this evidentiary hash may be, it is not clear, and it is not convincing.

Administrative Law Judge Christopher Larsen

CSC officials also could not identify who made the decision to suspend the two employees.

In addition, “special pay” the employees were offered as they worked long hours to try to get the medical record system ready to operate was withheld.

CSC said withholding the special pay was not retaliatory.

“Whatever this evidentiary hash may be, it is not clear, and it is not convincing,” the judge said in his decision.

Most of the back pay in the judgment went to Clem, as Spencer had a non-Hanford job lined up, knowing CSC planned to cut IT positions. Clem was not retained or interviewed as openings became available.

Clem received back pay totaling almost $173,000, which included the special pay he was told he would receive and then was denied. Clem also received $30,000 in compensatory damages and Spencer received $10,000.

Clem said in a statement Monday that, while he feels vindicated by the judge’s decision, he continues to be disappointed in DOE’s inadequate protections for whistleblowers.

Hanford Challenge attorney Nikolas Peterson said in a statement that the cases should “send a message to Hanford employers that retaliating against employees who raise safety, health and other concerns is illegal and expensive.”

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews