Brad Harper , Montgomery Advertiser
4:20 p.m. CDT October 11, 2016
Hyundai supplier Lear Corp. has agreed to stop suing a former employee, give her back her job and compensate other employees that were suspended during a long legal battle over health and safety claims at their Selma plant.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced the deal Tuesday, and the two sides filed a joint motion asking for a dismissal of the federal lawsuit against Lear-owned Renosol Seating and three of its managers, under the terms of the agreement.
The company fired and sued Kim King last year after she told the Montgomery Advertiser and others about health concerns at the plant and then tried to deliver a letter to the company's customer, the Hyundai assembly plant in Montgomery. King and others at the Selma plant, which makes car seats, had claimed that a chemical used in the production process was making them sick.
Lear had claimed in court documents that King was working with UAW "to pressure Hyundai to organize Lear" and that the safety claims were "merely a manner to unlawfully support unionization."
A federal whistleblower investigation found that Selma employees who reported hazards from chemical exposure “suffered multiple forms of retaliation,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In the joint agreement, the company pledged it will not retaliate against any employees and noted it has made “substantial upgrades” to the conditions at the plant.
“Our hope is that this case sends a clear message to employers that OSHA will use any and all methods at our disposal to protect workers’ right to raise safety complaints,” said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA’s regional administrator in Atlanta. “Every worker should feel comfortable raising concerns about work place hazards to their employer without the fear of retaliation. We are confident that the resolution of this case will help to facilitate a strong safety culture within this facility.”
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Lear Joint Motion Filed in Court
As part of the deal, the company must allow OSHA to provide three years of annual training about protected rights under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The Labor Department won a temporary injunction from U.S. District Judge Callie Granade last year that prevented Lear from "suing current or former employees because of those individuals' complaints about health and safety." That injunction was later vacated after an appeals court ruled that it was too broad.
OSHA said it was the first preliminary injunction ever sought under OSHA’s whistleblower provisions.
“One of the department’s highest priorities is to protect the voices of workers who speak up about hazards at their workplaces,” said Stanley E. Keen, regional solicitor in the department’s Atlanta office which litigated the case. “We will move swiftly to address instances of retaliation, as we did here. … The resolution of this case reflects significant improvements for employees at this employer’s facility.”