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Was an employee demoted for doing the right thing?

An employee at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport concerned about staffing and snow removal efforts found himself out of his longtime management position.

Abdul-Malik Ali, then a fifteen-year manager of field maintenance, told a Federal Aviation Administration inspector about continued understaffing at the airport and a lack of de-icing chemicals used to remove snow. The issue over fewer employees violated an agreement with the FAA three years prior that specified the number of field maintenance staff to combat snow and ice.

The FAA responded with notices of violation to the airport that noted pilots’ refusals to land and complaints of poor braking conditions because of snow and ice accumulation. Soon after, Ali was transferred to the position of “assistant to the deputy commissioner.” Former Airport Director Ricky Smith claimed that the demotion was the result of his poor management skills combined with a long history of complaints.

The city claimed that Smith had no knowledge of the complaint to the FAA before taking action against Ali.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) saw things differently. They found that Ali was warranted in blowing the whistle and his demotion was in retaliation for alerting officials to runway snowplowing problems. OSHA demanded that he be reinstated to his former position.

OSHA’s findings are not final. The city has 10 business days to provide additional evidence supporting its position. The OSHA has also invited city officials to propose a settlement.

Workers in any industry who witness and subsequently report staffing and safety issues should have the confidence that their complaints are heard without retaliation. Demotions, terminations and other retaliatory acts not only silence consciences objectors, but also put employees and customers at risk of serious injury or death.

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