US Department of Labor: TVA illegally fired whistleblower

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The Tennessee Valley Authority logo adorns their offices in downtown Chattanooga on May 7, 2019.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Labor has ruled in favor of a nuclear engineer who says the Tennessee Valley Authority fired her in retaliation for reporting safety and personnel concerns.

The Labor Department is ordering the utility to restore Beth Wetzel's job and compensate her more than $200,000 in back pay, lost benefits, damages and legal fees, according to the Labor Department order obtained by the Knoxville News Sentinel.

TVA said it fired Wetzel for insubordination because she spoke negatively about supervisor Erin Henderson, but the Labor Department ruled Wetzel properly raised safety concerns and gave "honest" testimony about Henderson's performance during an internal work environment investigation.

TVA disagrees with the findings and will appeal, spokesman Scott Brooks told the newspaper.

The complaint began in 2016, shortly after Henderson was promoted to the director of regulatory affairs role after fewer than six years with the utility, the Labor Department filings show. From then until 2018, Wetzel filed a series of nuclear safety complaints with Henderson and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including alleged violations of worker fatigue rules.

Henderson filed a complaint herself claiming Wetzel and other nuclear oversight staffers who reported the safety concerns were creating a "hostile work environment," the Labor Department ruling detailed.

An in-house attorney began probing the work environment complaint and asked Wetzel for her opinion on Henderson, to which Wetzel responded that Henderson was "too young" to be director and could be "vindictive," the Labor Department order documented.

Wetzel was fired for insubordination in October 2018, after which she filed her wrongful termination complaint with the Labor Department. The federal agency ruled that TVA's rationale for releasing Wetzel couldn't be supported, and the employer instead "took adverse action" against Wetzel because of her participation in the investigation.

Wetzel is the fourth TVA nuclear oversight staffer to claim retaliation for raising safety concerns in the past year, the newspaper said.