Utility Sector Whistleblower FAQ

There are various state and federal laws that can protect whistleblowers who report illegal activity or other misconduct in the utilities sectors. Learn more about utility sector whistleblowers, here.

Published on June 11, 2018

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What is a “utility” worker?

A utility worker is an individual working for any entity that delivers essential public services such as electricity, water, gas, and telecommunications and can sometimes include those working for common carriers. The utilities workforce is composed of both employees and independent contractors, it is important to differentiate whether you are an employee at a utility or a contractor before taking steps to raise concerns or report wrongdoing. Many whistleblower protections, such as anti-retaliation are only available to certain groups of workers, so learn the rules and find an attorney to help you make sure you are covered before you blow the whistle.

A common carrier is a person or a commercial enterprise that transports passengers or goods for a fee and is open to the public. Typical examples of common carriers include all sorts of public transportation such as bus, train, and subway services, shipowners, railroads, airlines, and taxi services.

Utilities can be publicly owned (typically as a division of local government), investor owned, or member owned cooperatives. These classifications, as well as the nature of the service being provided, can have implications for the specific whistleblower protections available to utility workers. It is important to understand the type of utility in question as you consider blowing the whistle or offer advice to anyone concerned about wrongdoing or violations. For example, many concerns raised by utilities employees may also relate to climate issues .

Under the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 2005 :

  • An electric utility company is any company that owns or operates facilities used for the generation, transmission, or distribution of electric energy for sale.
  • A gas utility company is any company that owns or operates facilities used for distribution at retail (other than the distribution only in enclosed portable containers or distribution to ten- ants or employees of the company operating such facilities for their own use and not for resale) of natural or manufactured gas for heat, light, or power.
  • A public utility is any person who owns or operates facilities used for transmission of electric energy in interstate commerce or sales of electric energy at wholesale in interstate commerce.

Which whistleblower laws apply to workers in the utility sector

The utilities sector is very broad and there are various federal and state laws that can apply to utility workers depending on the type of misconduct being reported. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces whistleblower provisions of more than 20 whistleblower statutes, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which protects workers who report safety hazards from retaliation.

Utilities are also subject to numerous federal environmental laws––such as the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and Solid Waste Disposal Act, among others––which all contain whistleblower provisions that protect individuals who report violations.

Many states have laws that provide additional protections for whistleblowers. Additionally, every state has a public utility commission (PUC) responsible for overseeing utilities. Many PUCs have specific mechanisms for reporting misconduct. To understand which law may apply to your situation in particular, it would be helpful to contact a whistleblower attorney in your local area who can confidentially listen to your concerns and help identify the best law to report under.

Who can qualify as a whistleblower?

A whistleblower is someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing. A whistleblower typically works inside of the organization where the wrongdoing is taking place; however, being an agency or company “insider” is not essential to serving as a whistleblower. What matters is that the individual discloses information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known.

Individuals who want to enjoy the protections and rewards of whistleblower law cannot rely on this simplified definition. Instead, they must adhere to the definitions and procedures in the laws under which they are seeking formal whistleblower status .

This means that under the appropriate laws, both employees and contractors may have a path to blowing the whistle that is fortified by anti-retaliation protections and, in some cases, rewards.

The specific requirements for qualifying for whistleblower protections vary depending on the law. On the federal level, a whistleblower may file using the False Claims Act , the Dodd-Frank Act Programs and have access to anonymous filing, anti-retaliation protections, and an award. There are several potential state laws under which an individual might qualify as a whistleblower, and it is important to find an attorney to help figure out which path would be best for you and what you need to know .

For example, nuclear whistleblowers have unique statutory protections. Similarly, government employees, such as those working for publicly owned utilities, may be subject to special whistleblower protections for government employees. A 2021 settlement between consumer advocates and San Diego Gas and Electric Company requires the utility to inform all employees about their right to blow the whistle, if you are an SDG&E employee who has not received this information after January 2022, contact The Utility Reform Network for assistance.

How can utility workers protect themselves from employer retaliation?

Virtually all whistleblower laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for reporting in good faith to an appropriate government agency; however, these laws may have different requirements for what constitutes protected activity.

Certain statutes, like the False Claims Act and Dodd-Frank Act, allow whistleblowers to protect themselves from retaliation by reporting confidentially or anonymously.

For more information, visit our How to Stop Retaliation Page as well as our cybersecurity guide for whistleblowers.

Can utility workers receive rewards under whistleblower laws?

Several major federal laws provide significant financial rewards to whistleblowers who provide original information that leads to a successful civil or criminal prosecution. These laws typically involve whistleblowers who report financial wrongdoing, but there are also laws that reward those who disclose certain environmental violations as well.

Additionally, utility workers who are retaliated against may be able to file civil employment actions in state or federal court, and, if successful, they may be entitled to compensatory, or even punitive, damages.

Should utility workers report internally to company whistleblower channels?

You should not make any disclosures to your company’s hotline or company compliance office until after you consult a whistleblower attorney. For more information about internal reporting, click here.

Can non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements prohibit individuals from reporting fraud to the government?

Non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements cannot lawfully prohibit individuals, including employees or former employees, from reporting unlawful conduct to law enforcement including regulators responsible for enforcing regulations. For more information, please visit our non-disclosure agreements and whistleblowers page.

How can I get help?

If you need additional help or want to contact an attorney, please fill out a confidential intake form. To learn more about how NWC assists whistleblowers, please visit our Find an Attorney page. The Utility Reform Network is also an excellent source of information and support. Additionally, consider taking action on behalf of whistleblowers who work to maintain our electrical grid and utilities systems in the United States. NWC is working hard to urge whistleblower supporters to take action and urge Congress to protect grid whistleblowers.

The New Whistleblower's Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What's Right and Protecting Yourself (Lyons Press, 2017) is the first-ever consumer's guide to whistleblowing. It contains clear and comprehensive rules that fully explain the how to effectively blow the whistle. It is very important that you review this resource in order to determine what laws may protect you and whether you need to take immediate action to protect your rights.

Please read the FAQ disclaimer.

The material in this FAQ may not reflect the most current legal developments. The content and interpretation of the law addressed herein is subject to revision. We disclaim all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all the contents of this website or in this FAQ. Before acting on any information or material in this web site, we strongly recommend you seek a professional legal attorney .

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