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Davis, California

Thursday, October 21, 2021

UC workers gain whistleblower protection

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently signed legislation granting University of California faculty and workers the same legal protections under the California’s Whistleblower Protection Act as state employees, including those at California State Universities and community colleges.

SB 650, authored by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) ensures that a UC employee can seek damages in court if they report a wrongdoing by the university and their complaint is not reviewed fairly.

Before SB 650 was passed, UC employees who were retaliated against for reporting wrongdoings could not sue for damages under the Whistleblower Protection Act, as long as the university reviewed the charges in a timely manner.

“The employees of the University are most likely to have knowledge of fraud, waste and other inappropriate behavior in the University,” said Joe Kiskis, UC Davis physics professor and vice president of external relations for the council of UC faculty associations, which supports SB 650.

“To protect the mission of the University and the interests of California citizens, it is important to bring problematic behavior to light and correct it. Employees who provide that beneficial service to the public need to be protected from retaliation.”

The governor signed SB 650 into law July 15. Among the organizations supporting the legislation were UC workers (Council of UC Faculty Associations, California Nurses Association, SEIU and AFSCME), Californians Aware, City and County of San Francisco and the California Newspaper Publishers.

The only voices of opposition came from UC administrators, who have opposed every other legislative reform of this kind.

“The Legislature has historically supported the importance of administrative review as a key step in the process of adjudicating employee complaints for all public employees and we believe that SB 650 devalues that importance,” said Happy Chastain, senior legislative director for state and governmental relations for the UC, in a letter to the governor about the bill.

“When employees have been retaliated against because of whistle-blowing activities, they ought to be able to seek compensation for damages through the courts. However, we believe that retaliation complaints should first be adjudicated through a robust administrative review process,” Chastain said.

UC Administrators proposed amendments to SB 650, which would have placed more importance on the administrative review process. These amendments were rejected.

“While [University administrators] support the principle of judicial remedy, they wished to insert an additional step into the process, which would make it more difficult for employees to seek damages via the courts,” Kiskis said. “SB 650 allows University employees to sue for damages after a University administrative review of the allegations of retaliation. The University proposed that the employee could not seek damages until after the employee first obtains a judicial reversal of the University administrative decision.”

However, some said the bill does not drastically change the processes by which whistleblower complaints are dealt with.

“This legislation changes the timing and circumstances by which victims can go to court and seek damages, but it doesn’t change internal whistleblower policy and procedure,” said Bob Loessberg-Zahl, UC Davis assistant executive vice chancellor and locally designated official to receive whistleblower complaints. “In terms of the UC’s processes, it’s not a significant change, but for victims seeking damages it could be.”

The passage of this legislation coincided with the refusal of UC officials to allow an independent filmmaker access to a public meeting. This refusal was in violation of the state’s open meetings law known as the Bagley-Keene act.

SB 650 addresses the concern of many that the University of California is being overly secretive and closed off from public access. Yee referred to the system as a “culture of secrecy” in a press release.

“UC executives should not be judge and jury on whether or not they are liable for monetary claims,” Yee said. “Finally, we are able to close this legal loophole and restore some dignity for UC whistleblowers and integrity to the system.”

SARAH HANSEL can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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