Following a federal investigation, a Lake Highlands area church must pay tens of thousands of dollars backpay and damages to an employee who accused them of wrongful termination.
According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unnamed employee, a nutrition specialist, was fired from New Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Lake Highlands area after raising concerns about insects and rodents in the childcare center in spring and summer of 2021.
This week the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a Department of Labor division, ordered NMZ to reinstate and pay back $11k plus $20k in additional damages to the employee.
“New Mount Zion Baptist Church’s actions toward the employee are unacceptable and deeply concerning,” OSHA Dallas regional administrator Eric S. Harbin said in a statement. “The existence of rodents and insects in food preparation and serving areas poses a health hazard. The employee had the legal right to express apprehensions about the unhygienic surroundings and should not have been fired for doing so.”
OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Programs in Dallas determined that the church violated the Food Safety Modernization Act when it illegally terminated the employee in retaliation for exercising their protected rights to report unsafe and unhealthy conditions, according to the news release.
The employee at the center of this case, according to OSHA documents, reported concerns to management and, later, the Dallas County Health Department.
The employee reported, over a period of weeks, “infestations of rodents, insects, and spiders in food preparation areas at the childcare facility that worsened by a nonfunctional air-conditioner.”
The employee began reporting concerns on May 24, 2021 and was terminated August 27, 2021, according to OSHA documents.
Despite receiving no prior discipline at work, the employee received multiple reprimands, culminating in termination (what OSHA calls “adverse actions,” after they began reporting unsafe conditions.
OSHA refers to reporting safety concerns as “protected activity” and noted that investigators established a “close temporal proximity between protected activity and the adverse action.”
Founded in 1946, New Mount Zion Baptist Church, located near Forest and Abrams, is a faith-based, community ministry that provides in-person and online worship services for more than 2,500 members. It also operates a credit union and childcare facility.
The church has held food drives for people in need and COVID vaccine distribution events, and its former pastor is the namesake of a Forest Lane post office.