March. 3, 2015BOS 2015-039
Bronx hair salon fired employee who warned co-workers
of formaldehyde hazards, suit alleges
Action against Salon Zoë employee is "illegal and inexcusable"
NEW YORK – All a receptionist at Salon Zoë hair salon wanted to do was make her fellow employees aware of health hazards associated with products containing formaldehyde that were regularly used by haircutters and stylists at the business in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Her employer responded by firing her.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Labor is suing the business and its owner, Kristina Veljovic, for discrimination, and seeking redress and compensation for the worker who exercised her rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
"This firing was illegal and inexcusable," said Robert Kulick, regional administrator in New York for the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "It's against the law to fire or otherwise retaliate against an employee for informing colleagues about possible health hazards in their place of employment. Such behavior not only intimidates workers, it also can deny them access to knowledge that will protect them against workplace hazards."
The suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York says the worker began to experience respiratory distress in December 2011, including difficulty breathing and an impaired sense of smell. She sought medical attention on multiple occasions over the next several months. During this period, she also told her employer that she believed the salon's hair-straightening products, which contain formaldehyde, were causing her health problems.
On June 27, 2012, she informed fellow employees of the presence of formaldehyde in the salon's products and provided several co-workers with copies of an OSHA fact sheet* detailing the dangers of formaldehyde exposure. Two days later, Kristina Veljovic terminated her employment. In July 2012, a physician confirmed that the worker's respiratory distress resulted from her formaldehyde exposure at work. She subsequently filed an antidiscrimination complaint with OSHA, which investigated and found merit to her complaint.
"No employee should be fired for raising awareness of a potential workplace health hazard," said Jeffrey Rogoff, the regional Solicitor of Labor in New York. "Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Labor Department has the authority to file suit against employers who retaliate against employees and it will do so when the case warrants. This is clearly one of those cases."
The department's lawsuit asks the court to affirm the discrimination charge and permanently prohibit the defendants from illegally retaliating against employees in the future. It also seeks payment of lost wages as well as compensatory, punitive and emotional distress damages to the employee, an offer of reinstatement with full benefits and seniority and the removal of all references to the matter in the worker's employment records. It would also require the employer to prominently post a notice that she will not discriminate against employees.
In a related action, OSHA's Tarrytown Area Office conducted an inspection of Salon Zoe and cited the company in December 2012 for lack of a chemical hazard communication program and for not providing the salon's employees with information and training on formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower* provisions of the OSH Act and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, worker safety, public transportation agency, maritime and securities laws.
Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government. Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor to request an investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program. Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.
Perez v. 492 & 494 West 238 St. Haircutters Inc., doing business as Salon Zoë, and Kristina Veljovic Civil Action Number: 15-cv-1358
Editor's note: The U.S. Department of Labor does not release names of employees involved in whistle-blower complaints.
Release Number: 15-163-NEW
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