Q: I worked in the main office at a church for more than five years. The church's senior pastor is very busy and often out visiting members in hospitals and senior homes. The three other pastors have other duties in the church. The church also has many volunteers who stop in regularly to work on different events or projects. They had noticed that the other pastors were rarely around, and questioned why they were receiving full-time instead of part-time salaries.
They became so concerned that they asked me to keep a calendar of when the pastors were at the church. I was usually there alone and knew the senior pastor was out calling on people. The calendar I kept showed that the additional pastors were working about 20 hours a week.
The church volunteers brought their complaint to the Elders, but instead of sharing the concern, they became defensive. I ended up being fired for keeping track of the other pastors' hours. The Elders passed it around that I retired, which is not true. I was well respected by church members, and I would like them to know the truth. I also was told that church employees are exempt from collecting unemployment, but I don't know if it is true. I am so heart-broken from this I have not been able to check into anything. What do you suggest?
A: Look into filing a lawsuit since you are morally in the right and deserve to be vindicated. One would think the Elders and the senior pastor would appreciate being told of a potential fraud (collecting full-time pay for part-time work) rather than releasing their anger on you, the messenger. After all, they should be accountable to church members, especially when the members' donations are paying their salaries. As Patrick Boyd says from his many years practicing labor law, "No good deed goes unpunished."
Interestingly, one can experience the same situation in different states, resulting in very different outcomes. New York, New Jersey and Florida will surprise people with their similarities and differences.
According to attorneys Patrick J. Boyd and William Li of the Boyd Law Group PLLC in New York, "New York State law prohibits retaliatory action by employers in very limited circumstances. Advocacy groups have tried for years to enhance whistleblower protections but without success. For an employee to be protected under the law covering whistleblowers, the employee must have made a complaint to a supervisor prior to making a complaint to the public body. If an employee suffers an adverse employment action as a result of engaging in protected activity, the employee may have a whistleblower claim."
Even though the assistant was fired for keeping track of and reporting the pastors' work hours to the church members, her action does not relate to an activity or policy that "creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety. The church members most likely appreciated knowing the truth; unfortunately, her truthful expose is not protectable by law."
Attorney Russell Adler of The Law Offices of Russell E. Adler PLLC in New York says New Jersey whistleblower law, called the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, seems to offer far greater protection to the whistleblower. "To establish a claim, an employee must allege he/she reasonably believed the employer's conduct violated a rule, a rule or regulation promulgated by law or a clear public policy mandate; that the employee disclosed or threatened to disclose the conduct to a supervisor or public body; suffered adverse employment action (was fired); and there was a link between the termination and the whistle-blowing act." Since the assistant was fired shortly after reporting the hours, a retaliatory termination seems likely.
To show how state laws can vary on the same issue, Florida's whistleblower law is much closer to New Jersey's than New York's. Attorney Franck D. Chantayan (West Palm Beach, Fla.) says one of the key criteria is "the employee must notify his/her employer or supervisor, in writing, about the activity that violates a law, rule or regulation so as to allow the employer to correct the offending act. Many of the events leading up to the assistant's termination could affect whether she would be protected under whistleblower law in Florida."
Email all your questions to workplace expert Lindsey Novak at [email protected] She answers all emails. To find out more about Lindsey Novak and to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Website at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2013 CREATORS.COM