At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I heard from many corrections officers who live in our Jackson community. They shared their experiences working in our prisons during this public health crisis, expressed concerns about procedures that weren’t effective and sought clarity on policies established by the administration. The information they shared opened my eyes to the situation in our prisons, and we were able to work together to address their concerns and improve safety.
Unfortunately, each of the corrections employees who reached out to me risked possible retribution from the department for doing so because of the governor’s recent actions. Gov. Whitmer recently decided a policy that prohibits departments from taking disciplinary action against employees for communicating with the Legislature – a protection that has been included in every state budget since 2006 – is unenforceable.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle know just how important these whistleblower protections are. State employees are often in the best position to observe government inefficiencies. When they share feedback and ideas with the Legislature they can help save taxpayer dollars and deliver better service to the public. They also might want to talk to their legislator to report certain activity, request help on a state government issue, or advocate their personal position on legislation.
No state employee should face retribution for taking any of these actions. That’s why the Legislature voted to restore the whistleblower protections by unanimously approving Senate Bill 686, 108-0 in the House and 37-0 in the Senate.
The governor vetoed the plan earlier this month, again signifying she would allow her departments to punish civil servants for talking to members of the Legislature. As your representative, I value hearing from those I serve. The governor’s actions will no doubt have a chilling effect. We should all be alarmed.
In her previous role as a state legislator, Gov. Whitmer voted to provide state employees with whistleblower protections on more than a dozen occasions. As governor, she stripped the language out of each department’s budget and vetoed a bill that received unanimous support from legislators on both sides of the aisle. This begs the question: Why won’t she allow the voices of our state employees to be heard?
The corrections officers who reached out to me with concerns about the department’s response to COVID-19 are brave. Not only do they work in a stressful environment that can be mentally and physically draining, they stepped up and shared information they thought was critical even though they feared retribution to the point where they were compelled to request confidentiality. Of course, I respected their wishes, and my colleagues and I were able to use the information they shared to improve policies and better protect the workers and inmates in our state prisons. It’s a shame that the governor’s actions won’t allow state employees the same opportunities others have when situations like this arise.
State Rep. Julie Alexander represents residents of the cities of Jackson and Concord, as well as Hanover, Napoleon, Parma, Pulaski, Sandstone, Summit and Spring Arbor townships.