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OSHA rules in favor of workers in school project

Three union electricians who said they were laid off in retaliation for complaining about unsafe working conditions at Martin Luther King High School will receive $150,000 in lost wage and benefits.

Three union electricians who said they were laid off in retaliation for complaining about unsafe working conditions at Martin Luther King High School will receive $150,000 in lost wage and benefits.

The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday that the payment was part of the department's enforcement of whistle-blower laws designed to protect employees who speak up about unsafe situations.

Their employer, Hyde Electric Corp., which will pay the $150,000, had been hired to replace the fire alarm system at the school in 2008.

The company, although it is paying the settlement, disagrees with OSHA's conclusion. OSHA said the workers were laid off because they blew the whistle on unsafe working conditions.

But "they were actually laid off for lack of work," said Ken Funk, vice president at Hyde, a Philadelphia company.

The lack of work, Funk said, happened when Hyde stopped the job in August 2008 because it had a separate dispute with the school district over how to safely handle the work in the auditorium, where there was asbestos in the ceiling.

The school district, Funk said, had one plan to deal with the asbestos, but he disagreed with it because, he said, it wasn't safe enough for the workers. His plan, which ultimately prevailed, added $10,000 to the cost of the contract, which Funk estimated at $500,000.

Funk said the three electricians were the only ones employed at the job. By the time the work resumed in November 2008, two had found other jobs and the third returned to work at the school. He has since been laid off again due to lack of work.

Under the settlement, the company must post information on employees' rights as whistle-blowers.

"Employees should be free to exercise their rights under the law without fear of termination or retaliation by their employers," Robert Kulick, OSHA's acting regional administrator in Philadelphia, said in a statement.

The electricians are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. "The safety of our members is of paramount importance," Local 98 business manager John Dougherty said.

The school district could not be reached immediately for comment.