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OSHA sues Whole Foods over firing of sewage spill whistle-blower

OSHA sues Whole Foods over firing of sewage spill whistle-blower

ATLANTA—The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has sued Whole Foods Market Group Inc. in an effort to reinstate a former employee allegedly fired for reporting the chain's failure to address a raw sewage spillage in its Miami Beach, Fla., store.

According to Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor, United States Department of Labor vs. Whole Foods Market Group Inc., on Nov. 1, 2009, heavy rain and high tides caused the main sewer line on the street where the Miami Beach store of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods is located to rupture, sending raw sewage into the store's drainage system.

“Due to the recent collapse of some of the workplace's sanitation lines that connected its drainage system to the main sewer line, sewage backed up and spilled out into the workplace,” including the specialty cheese department and restrooms, according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Miami. The store remained open.

The next day, marketing specialist Bridget Hobart sent emails to her supervisor alerting him to the contamination and complaining about the store manager's failure to address the situation.

She also lodged a complaint with the store's anonymous tip line the same day. Ms. Hobart subsequently followed up with additional emails and a phone conversation with an associate marketing coordinator on Nov. 3 and Nov. 5, 2009.

On Nov. 5, her supervisor discharged Ms. Hobart “for allegedly making false and malicious statements to the effect” that the store manager had not taken any steps to redress the sewage contamination.

In its suit filed Tuesday, OSHA accuses Whole Foods of discrimination against Ms. Hobart by discharging her and refusing to employ her, and for failing to “compensate her for the time she should have continued to work for Whole Foods.”

The suit seeks to reinstate Ms. Hobart with full benefits, expunge her employment records with regard to the issue, and pay her lost wages as well as compensatory and punitive damages, among other things.

A Whole Foods spokesman could not be reached for comment.

In September, OSHA said it had released a new edition of its Whistleblower Investigations Manual, which is part of a series of measures to improve its Whistleblower Protection Program that were announced in August.