A bill that would expand state employee and state agency whistleblower protections for contractors was passed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 947, authored by Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), would expand protections of the California Whistleblower Protection Act. Currently, the Act protects state employees, University of California employees, California State University employees, court employees, and applicants for such employment for having made a protected disclosure against acts of reprisal, retaliation, threats, coercion or other similar acts. Under SB 947, which was introduced in February, the protections would be expanded to include private entities awarded no-bid contracts over $5 million and their employees.
The bill was amended Tuesday before the vote from private entities awarded no-bid contracts over $25 million and their employees, greatly increasing the scope of contractors who would be protected.
Wilk wrote the bill due to contractors working for the state experiencing wrongdoings by state agencies and entities in recent years. Most notably, contractors from Perkin Elmer who were working at the Valencia Branch Laboratory with a contract worth nearly $2 billion had blown the whistle on COVID-19 testing activities that failed to provide timely and adequate testing results. Despite bringing the matter to public attention, the state quickly dropped the contract with Perkin Elmer over the whistleblowing, with the company having no recourse due to not being protected by the state whistleblower law. The contract is currently expected to end completely by mid-May.
“Robust anti-retaliation and anti-interference protections for workers on California state contracts make it far more likely that the government, taxpayers, and in many cases, the authorities, are aware of any improprieties,” said Senator Wilk on Wednesday. “The Valencia Lab fiasco was exposed by whistleblowers, and eventually, the lab’s contract was canceled — a testament to the importance of the role of whistleblowers in exposing problems.”
“I firmly believe that comprehensive protections for whistleblowers are a hallmark of a free, fair, and transparent society. I am glad that the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed and had enough confidence in my legislation to expand its scope to include all state contracts over $5 million.”
While many have come out in support of the bill, little opposition has been noted, as seen through the unanimous vote in the Judiciary Committee.
“Protecting people who are pointing out wrongs is something that people from both parties generally agree with,” explained John Childress, a former whistleblower, to the Globe on Wednesday. “It’s important for employees to raise the alarm when they see something illegal, unsafe, or something similar happening. That California law for state workers, it’s odd but not all too surprising that contractors aren’t covered, although the absolutely should be. State contractors work in COVID-19 labs, but they can also work on everything from tearing down plants that held dangerous materials to overseeing employees who handle a lot of state funds. There’s just too much at stake for both the state and for citizens.”
SB 947 will next be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the coming weeks.