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New York demolition firm sued over alleged whistleblower retaliation

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The U.S. Department of Labor has sued a New York demolition and asbestos abatement contractor for firing an employee who reported safety concerns — a charge denied by a top management official.

Lucian Fermo worked for Regional Environmental Demolition Inc. of Niagara Falls, New York, as a demolition and asbestos abatement laborer on a Buffalo, New York, project from April to June 2014, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo on Feb. 19. He had worked at the company since May 2011 prior to being fired in mid-June 2014.

On April 21, 2014, Mr. Fermo observed weakened or deteriorated sections of flooring called “soft spots,” including in one location where his foot broke through the floor, according to the lawsuit. He reported the hazard to his superiors, including Vice President Enrico Liberale, because of concerns that he and others might fall through the floors, but filed an anonymous complaint to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the hazard went uncorrected, according to the lawsuit. In June, the company discharged him after being contacted by an OSHA inspector in response to the anonymous complaint, according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Fermo filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA in July 2014, which the agency investigated and found had merit. In November 2015, Mr. Fermo attended an asbestos abatement annual certification class in which one of his former superiors, Thomas Wiley, loudly proclaimed Mr. Fermo to be a “rat,” according to the lawsuit.

The department filed the lawsuit against the employer and company officials Charles Van Epps and Mr. Liberale for retaliating against Mr. Fermo for raising these safety concerns. The lawsuit seeks payment for Mr. Fermo’s lost wages, compensatory and other damages, and interest, and to have all references to the matter expunged from his personnel records.

“Regional Environmental Demolition had no reason and no right to fire this worker for repeatedly reporting a safety hazard that could have seriously harmed him and his fellow workers,” Robert Kulick, OSHA’s regional administrator in New York, said Monday in a statement. “Firing or retaliating against workers who raise safety concerns is intimidation, plain and simple. If employees fear losing their jobs, hazards can go unreported and injuries can result.”

However, Mr. Liberale denied the lawsuit’s allegations and said the accusations arose after a dispute over Mr. Fermo’s hourly rate, and said his attorneys are preparing a response.

“He’s actually lying about everything,” Mr. Liberale said of Mr. Fermo’s complaints. “He wasn’t fired. He was on an $18-an-hour job and a lot of the crews are on $45-an-hour jobs.”

Mr. Fermo could not be reached for comment.