In a long-running wage dispute between the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and hundreds of its disgruntled case workers, the state agency demanded to know the identities of whistle-blowing employees. In an unusual case, a federal appeals court panel firmly said "no."
The case involves overtime policy and pay for social workers. In 2006, one case worker in the state agency's Walla Walla office complained to the federal Department of Labor that she was not being paid overtime, despite having to work between 45 and 65 hours a week.
The Department of Social and Health Services told employees that they were not entitled to overtime pay, except in emergencies, and that they must take "flex" time off to compensate. But the case worker scoffed at that, telling federal wage and hour officials that her case load was too big to take flex time.
The U.S. Secretary of Labor got involved. And when he filed suit against the state agency for allegedly violating the Fair Labor Standard law, he unleashed a flood tide of similar complaints. After he sued the state agency, more than 350 other DHS caseworkers told their stories of being denied overtime.
Earlier this year, managers of the state agency demanded to have the identities of the complaining workers. But Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez refused. When a lower federal court ordered him to reveal the names, he quickly asked the appeals court to overturn the order.
The appeals judges ruled that concealing informants's identities is a particularly effective means of preventing retaliation by employers. As they put it, "the pressures which an employer may bring to bear on an employee are difficult to detect and even harder to correct."
The lower court judge in Tacoma has been ordered to keep the names of the informants secret.
If the state agency is eventually obliged to pay overtime retroactively, it could cost the state millions of dollars.