Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday June 11th, 2015, 3:33pm

Whistleblower Becomes Alleged Victim Of Retaliatory Firing At Nippon Sharyo Plant (VIDEO) (UPDATED)

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."

As Progress Illinois has reported, OSHA has fined Nippon Sharyo multiple times since 2014 for various health and safety violations.

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.

Comments

Im sorry but his lady is so full of it. yes things happen and some things are over looked, but if they are mentioned they will get fixed ASAP. i also work at Nippon in Shop 3 underframe heavy welding.  I have worked at other shops that makes this place look like heaven. one of the safest and most clean shop around i can say that.  she just wants a check from the union and wants the attention and is probably upset because all she would do id be a negative nancy at work and i bet  everyone was sick of hearing it. if your not happy leave, no one enjoys their job everyday.  its a factory people, its not like working at walmart.  The IBEW made their prescence noticed, we made are voices noticed, the majority has spoken so they need to set back and let AMERICANS work and support thier families.  And as far as the BS she said about nippon saying they wold leasve is a crock.  They never once said those things, i have been in all meetings that she has.  never once did theysay retailiation would come from our person desicions.  They told of pro's and con's of a union.  i admit i like parts of having a union also, but i also have cons.  Those are my opinions only.  weareall adults not children, your big enough to make yor own choices people.  i hope she does get a job or her same job back, because everyone deserves the chance to make a living, i just hope that when someone gives you that oppotuniy you appreciate the gift they have extended to you, because the pay the offer is high forthis area, and i appreciate it verymuch to raise and support my family.  So to allunsatified employees please by all means, state your opinions but be happy you havea job, if your so good and alented or whatever and you dont enjoy your job, by all means move and and stop trying to rid the company i work for to earn a living to raise my family, b an adult about it.  Good day

 

She is so full of it !! And as usual she's doing what she does best crying!! so many people hated working with her! She never stated that for the review process if anyone's review was not satisfactory due to their work performance,attendance,and so forth that the employee was put on a last chance warning not just her everyone in that category!! Meaning come to work do your job and act like an adult, I also work for Nippon Sharyo in shop 2 I absolutely love my job! Every new company goes through problems and over time things get fixed nothing can happen over night. They have changed so many things even in the past year that definitley helps people with children out, and/or family members with an illness as the guys stated above if you don't like your job and all you do is complain non-stop about how you hate it and your treated unfair you know where the door is!!!! Nippon Sharyo is a great company that offers great opportunities for people. I myself am against the Union which is my choice and everyone does have the right to their choice I will stand proud and fight for Nippon every step of the way! And again as the guy stated previously NEVER did Nippon tell any employees that they would pick up and leave! Being a reporter you should probably do a little further investigating before you publish things so you don't look rediculous and he woman in the video couldn't even pronounce the company's name correctly "what a joke"  get over yourself and move on! 

Both those comments are some of the more ass kissing bullshit you hear in a place like Nippon sharyo. U speak out and u will be FIRED!. Making the work place safe is what counts first, not quality...As for every Monday and Wednesday meeting there was injuries were reported every single time.And then they have the nerve to bring in a guy who talks about how bad the union is. The real reason is they want to be able to (Control Your actions) Instead of letting people speak their MIND....I will have to agree with her because I've seen racism discrimination favoritism all go on at that plant.. The supervisors and Leads want you to kiss their ass all the time . F*** that I'm there to work. That goes for Randy and Andy! And I definitely wouldn't be taking advice from a Jeffrey Cox not your coworkers fault your son killed himself.. I'll see you again sometime buddy

Well over 1,000 railroad workers have filed cases with OSHA based on a 2007 law making it illegal to fire or discipline workers in connection with reporting on the job injuries. I myself was fired from the CN/IC in 2008 and settled after over 6 years of waiting and negotiating. Bravo for publicizing this case.

A conference to organize united struggle around railroad worker and environmental safety issues will be held Sept 15 at UE hall 37 s Ashland Ave. click on link for more info.http://www.railroadconference.org/

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