Passenger railcar manufacturer Nippon Sharyo has once again garnered the attention of activists and workers' rights advocates, this time for an alleged retaliatory firing. A former Nippon Sharyo worker says she was let go last week after speaking out about alleged unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment at the company's plant in Rochelle, Illinois.
Back in mid-March, then-Nippon Sharyo worker Jennifer Svenkerud filed a whistleblower discrimination complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), claiming that she was written up and sent home without pay after speaking to company officials about an alleged fall hazard in the non-unionized facility.
Svenkerud, 42, worked at Nippon Sharyo's Rochelle plant as an interior railcar assembler. Before filing her complaint with OSHA of the U.S. Labor Department, Svenkerud said she was assigned on March 3 to work inside a passenger railcar that lacked handrails and safety boards to prevent falls.
"They had me drilling up into a ceiling, and I had a five-foot drop within about a half an inch from me," she told Progress Illinois. "And we're supposed to have boards there. So I went to my boss to get boards there, and they told me that that was part of my job, and I didn't need the boards."
After speaking with the supervisor, Svenkerud said she went to the plant's safety manger to discuss her request for the boards. The problem was eventually fixed that day.
The next day, Svenkerud said she was pulled into a discipline meeting and was told by management that other workers in her station had complaints about working with her. Svenkerud claims the company sent her home that day without pay. When she returned to work the next day, she was allegedly given a "last-chance write-up," meaning "if you do anything else [wrong], you're fired," Svenkerud said.
Asked why she thinks she was sent home and written up, Svenkerud said, "I think my boss was upset because I went above him about the safety boards."
"I had no previous write-ups or anything in my file," added Svenkerud, who had worked at the plant for about a year and a half. "I didn't deserve that write-up, and I didn't deserve to be sent home with no pay. So that's why I filed the whistleblower [discrimination complaint]. And I've seen lots of other people get retaliated against for speaking about safety."
After this incident, Svenkerud said the company also temporarily took her off the plant's "safety committee," comprised of several workers who monitor safety in the facility and report problems to management.
Though Svenkerud filed her whistleblower discrimination complaint with OSHA in mid-March, she said Nippon Sharyo first learned of it about two weeks before she was fired.
The company allegedly told Svenkerud that she was being fired "for going to the wrong person to report a problem." However, Svenkerud maintains that she did nothing wrong and that she was fired in retaliation for submitting her complaint to OSHA.
Multiple messages left with Nippon Sharyo seeking comment for this story were not returned by deadline.
Before she was fired, Svenkerud said she and other workers had also been looking to unionize but were allegedly met with pushback from the company.
Nippon Sharyo officials "would tell us that the unions are bad, and if the union came in there, the plant was going to close down," she said. "They did lots of things to intimidate us and make us feel like we didn't want (a union) in there because we would all be in trouble" because Nippon Sharyo "would leave if the union came in."
Svenkerud, of Sycamore, spoke to Progress Illinois about her experience Thursday morning outside Chicago's Union Station, where the Illinois Jobs to Move America Coalition held a press conference to denounce the firing.
The worker advocates blew whistles and chanted, "Bring Jen back!"
"Nippon Sharyo has broken the law, I think," said Susan Hurley with Chicago Jobs with Justice, a member of the Illinois Jobs to Move America Coalition. "And I think that they have illegally retaliated against Jen for speaking out, and that is unacceptable."
"This is a company that's taking public money, taking state of Illinois money, taking federal money," Hurley added. "They're building railcars for Metra right here in Illinois. And they're retaliating against a worker speaking out about safety? No. No. This is not OK, and we are going to fight until Jen gets her job back."
Here's more from Hurley plus additional comments from Svenkerud:
The workers' rights advocates spoke out against Nippon Sharyo's firing of Svenkerud ahead of the July 28 deadline for railcar manufacturers to submit proposals to the Chicago Transit Authority for a $2 billion contract to build at least 400 new CTA railcars. The Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition expects that Nippon Sharyo will be among the companies to submit a bid to the CTA for the contract, funding for which would come from federal and local sources.
Nippon Sharyo has already landed $1.3 billion in contracts with U.S. public transit agencies, including Metra, in the past six years, according to the Illinois Jobs to Move America Coalition. The company has also received $4.7 million in state support to open its Rochelle factory.
"If we don't have an employer that's respectful to its workers, what does that say about taxpayer money that's being used on these projects," Chicago Federation of Labor's Secretary-Treasurer Robert Reiter said at Thursday's press conference. "Nippon Sharyo: Do the right thing. Respect your workers. Don't retaliate against them. And provide a safe workplace."
Donald Finn, business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134, was another labor leader at Thursday's press conference.
"We are here today because Nippon Sharyo refuses to recognize the basic tenet, the fundamental right of workplace safety," Finn said. "This is not about getting a union contract with Nippon or increasing our membership at the IBEW. This is about ensuring that the men and women who walk into Nippon every day, give their employer an honest day's work, (that) they're able to walk out of that plant at the end of the day and go home and take care of their families."
In late March, OSHA levied $32,000 in proposed fines against the company following an inspection that unearthed several instances in which workers were exposed to various slip, trip, fall and electrical hazards. Those fines have since been reduced to $18,000. The current status of the case is: "Pending abatement of violations, penalty payment plan in place," according to OSHA.
Finn called on Nippon Sharyo to engage in a dialogue with its workers about their concerns.
"They have refused to respond to our request for dialogue, let alone have the decency to sit down and meet with us," Finn said. "They refuse to recognize that they have a problem at their plant."
UPDATE 6/15/15 4:39 p.m.: In response to the allegations raised at the Illinois Jobs to Move America's press conference on Thursday, Nippon Sharyo issued the following statement to Progress Illinois on Monday:
Since starting operations in July 2012, Nippon Sharyo Manufacturing has been committed to providing a safe, secure and respectful work environment. Any charges or complaints that it has violated this commitment is taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated and remedied. When a claim is under investigation or litigation, it is the Company's standard policy not to comment on the specifics of a case. However, we have and will continue to fully cooperate with all government agencies to address and clarify all complaints, misstatements and untruths.
Safety is, and continues to be our #1 priority, and any accusations that question our commitment to this pledge are unfounded. We work hard at maintaining a safe and secure work environment, and employees are trained and given the necessary knowledge, tools and resources they need to do their job safely. We have many safety programs, which date back to the opening of our Rochelle facility, such as: Safety Team, Safety Patrol, Employee Report of Injury Program, Near Miss Program, Job Hazard Analysis, etc. To protect workers' health we perform Industrial Hygiene testing every quarter. We also regularly inspect and obtain records of assurances from professional engineers regarding the structural safety of all temporary structures, such as scaffolding.
Nippon Sharyo strives to uphold the highest standards of business ethics and workplace behavior and requires anyone employed by the company to comply with Nippon Sharyo's Code of Business Conduct. The Code covers a wide range of accepted business practices and procedures. It mandates an open-door policy which means we will address any question or employee complaint that is brought to us in a productive and professional manner. There has never been retaliatory actions taken against any employee for speaking up or reporting a problem on the job.
In fact, Nippon Sharyo enforces "Whistleblower Protection" through its Code of Business Conduct. This allows employees to report ethical violations in confidence and without fear of retaliation. The company does not permit retaliation of any kind against employees for good faith reports of ethical violations.
Nippon Sharyo is committed to enriching the Rochelle economy and community and provides gainful full-time employment to more than 600 residents of Illinois. As part of this community commitment, the Company will continue to protect its employees with constant review and testing of its safety practices and operations.