The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 was a comprehensive transportation funding and policy act of the United States Federal Government, 96 Stat. 2097. The legislation was championed by the Reagan administration to address concerns about the surface transportation infrastructure (highways and bridges). Effective in 1983, the STAA was enacted to encourage employee reporting of noncompliance with safety regulations governing commercial motor vehicles. Congress recognized that employees in the transportation industry are often best able to detect safety violations and yet, because they may be threatened with discharge for cooperating with enforcement agencies, they need express protection against retaliation for reporting these violations. The Act protects employee “whistle-blowers” by forbidding discharge, discipline, or other forms of discrimination by the employer in response to an employee’s complaining about or refusing to operate motor vehicles that do not meet the applicable safety standards.
Congress also recognized that the employee’s protection against having to choose between operating an unsafe vehicle and losing his job would lack practical effectiveness if the employee could not be reinstated pending complete review. The longer a discharged employee remains unemployed, the more devastating are the consequences to his personal financial condition and prospects for reemployment. Ensuring the eventual recovery of backpay may not alone provide sufficient protection to encourage reports of safety violations. As a consequence, the STAA provided additional protections by authorizing temporary reinstatement based on a preliminary finding of reasonable cause to believe that the employee has suffered a retaliatory discharge.
Truck drivers who believe they have suffered retaliation for reporting violations, refusing to commit violations, or participating in proceedings, can seek relief from the U.S. Department of Labor. Under STAA, truck drivers who believe they have suffered an adverse employment action (such as discharge, demotion, discipline, or denial of advancement), have only 180 days to file a simple written complaint with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The complaint can be postmarked or faxed to meet the deadline. If OSHA determines that a violation did occur, it can issue a preliminary order requiring reinstatement during further proceedings. Both sides will have an opportunity to present their evidence in a recorded hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ’s decision is reviewed by the Administrative Review Board, and parties can appeal to federal courts of appeals.