Denton-based truck manufacturer Peterbilt allegedly violated federal whisteblower protections by retaliating against an employee who raised concerns about COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against Paccar Inc., which does business as Peterbilt Motor Co., alleging the company last year fired an employee concerned about COVID-19.

An investigation by the agency found the Denton-based truck manufacturer violated federal whisteblower protections by retaliating against an employee who raised concerns about exposure to the virus in March 2020. The employee raised concerns with a supervisor at the Denton facility about working within six feet of other workers in the plant. The supervisor told the employee the workspace would be cleaned, but after Paccar learned the employee had expressed concerns about the company’s response publicly, the employee was fired, according to a news release announcing the suit.

Before being fired, the employee reached out to the Denton Chamber of Commerce to ask what action was being taken to address COVID-19 concerns at the Peterbilt plant, which employs roughly 2,000 people. The chamber told the employee the question was best directed to Peterbilt management and forwarded his email to said management, according to federal court documents. Peterbilt fired the employee the next day, stating he had disclosed trade secret information in his email to the chamber, and that he was also being fired for poor performance.

“Both stated reasons were untrue and are a pretext for unlawful retaliation for [the former employee’s] expressing his valid complaints related to workplace safety and COVID-19 at defendant’s facility and his attempts to ensure a safe workplace,” the complaint reads.

The employee filed a retaliation complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in April 2020.

The Denton Chamber of Commerce declined to comment for this article, citing the active lawsuit.

The suit filed by the Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor asks the court to order the company to comply with anti-retaliation provisions in the Occupational Safety and Health Act; reinstate the employee to his former employment position with the company; pay the employee back wages, interest, compensatory and punitive damages and other remedies; and expunge the employee’s personnel record.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. It does not list how much in back wages and other damages the plaintiff seeks.

“Our investigation found that PACCAR terminated a worker for reporting their concerns that the company’s response to the dangers of the coronavirus would not prevent its spread,” Regional OSHA Administrator Eric S. Harbin said in the release. “Every worker has the right to report safety concerns of any kind without fear of retaliation.”

Peterbilt is Denton’s largest private employer. Paccar representatives declined to comment, and calls to Peterbilt were not returned by Wednesday evening.

AMBER GAUDET can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @amb_balam.

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