Federal employees who file whistleblower disclosures or retaliation complaints are 10 times more likely to be fired, GAO has found, adding that firing rates are especially high among such employees still in their probationary periods.
“Estimated termination rates among employees who filed whistleblower disclosures from fiscal years 2014 to 2018 were higher than termination rates among all federal employees. This applies to both probationary and permanent employees,” a report said.
GAO said that over that time, about 2,800 employees on average annually made disclosures or filed complaints with the Office of Special Counsel, the agency that investigates such complaints and that can bring cases to the Merit Systems Protection Board seeking to have the employee made whole and punishment of officials who violated civil service protections.
It added that records in about a fifth of such cases do not show whether the employee was still in the probationary period, when employees have lesser appeal rights but they may file a complaint with OSC if they believe a personnel action was retaliation for whistleblowing. Probationary periods vary but typically are two years at the Defense Department and one year elsewhere for competitive service employees.
GAO estimated that probationary employees accounted for between about 7-18 percent of such cases, based on the average of about 13 percent of federal employees being in that status at any one time.
For example, it said that in fiscal year 2018 the termination rate for probationary employees government-wide was 1.1 percent, while the lowest estimated rate of termination among probationary employees who filed a whistleblower disclosure was 10.1 percent. For permanent employees, the overall termination rate was 0.3 percent, while the lowest estimated rate for those who made disclosures was 2.9 percent.
Those figures were consistent across the years studied, it said, adding that on the high end termination rates could be as high as 46.9 percent for whistleblowing probationary employees and 5.2 for non-probationers. Rates were even higher for those who filed both whistleblower disclosures and whistleblower retaliation complaints, it said.
“The higher rates of termination GAO found for filers generally, and probationary employees specifically, suggests that there could be a risk of unequal treatment. Without first identifying probationary employees who file whistleblower claims, OSC would lack complete data should it decide at some point to analyze the effect of probationary status on filers,” it said.
However, the OSC disagreed with a recommendation that it require employees to identify whether they are in probationary status, saying it wants to limit information required from them to what is pertinent to investigating the complaint.