Laid off with no severance under possibly unethical circumstances
March 11, 2017 12:12 AM   Subscribe

I worked for small non profit centered around communities and families. I was recently informed that disturbed asbestos had been discovered in the building.

The asbestos was found in a children's area and I was told the building was safe since discovery and would be closed for abatement by a licensed contractor. I was vocal to my boss about the organization's need to be transparent with members and the community about the situation but he (and, I was told, the Board), disagreed and said the abatement would be carried out without informing anyone, including our staff. As one of only a few people who knew about the problem, I was also threatened by CEO with termination "if word got out". To make matters worse, I was made point person to handle incoming questions about the closure. I informed CEO that that I would not lie or give false information to anyone who called but instead would refer all questions to him, which he agreed to. Two weeks later, I was let go with no reason and no severance.

I feel that I was treated badly (possibly illegally?) and would like to try to negotiate a fair severance package. I've tried calling a few employment lawyers but each has either referred me to someone else (I'm assuming because of the low money involved) or flat out passed on the case. Do I have any options here or should I just let it go? Perhaps a referral to a good NJ attorney?

Anonymous email is

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total)
Seems like New Jersey whistleblower laws would be on your side. Hopefully someone here will have a lawyer recommendation for you.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:26 AM on March 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I wouldn't let it go. Small nonprofits have kind of a problem where they often do stuff that's not really legal, but they often do the right thing when nudged by a lawyer. Often, just a strongly worded letter by a lawyer will be enough to do the trick. I'd definitely consult someone.
posted by corb at 4:14 AM on March 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

Interesting.... wouldn't he be worried that by treating you badly, you could go to the press with this sort of thing?

I have no solid advice here for you, except that you may consider reframing what the bigger issue is here: Legally, are they obligated to disclose the asbestos issue? If so, people need to know about this. And you deserve to be compensated for the terrible position they put you and the children in. IF legal disclosure is necessary.

Thank you for prioritizing ethics. The world will thrive with more people like you.
posted by cacao at 7:25 AM on March 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yes, you can absolutely pursue this with lawyers and reporters, but it will likely be to your personal detriment. You will probably not get your job back, you will not get any money, and you will have a hard time finding jobs in the future.

Before you go down this road, do some fact finding:
1. What exactly was found - how much asbestos, and how disturbed? What was the actual hazard posed? What kind of harm might have occurred? What were the risk factors - does a person have to eat the substance or just stand near it and breathe? What portion of the visitors were exposed, and is it possible to identify the specific persons or time periods?

2. What are the legal requirements for disclosure? Are the proper authorities involved? Can you talk to them personally to get your questions answered?

Also think about what you want to happen if you disclose the details to the public. Do you want to encourage people to get tested? Is there an actual medical test for this particular health risk? Is it an invasive test? If someone is ill, is it possible to prove that it was a direct result of this situation? Is there a treatment to mitigate the health effects in someone who was exposed?

Also consider if there is a broad, uninformed panic, will the nonprofit be able to pursue its mission? Is that what you want?
posted by metaseeker at 10:14 AM on March 11, 2017

Original poster here. I don't believe the organization's non-disclosure was illegal but I do believe there is a local municipal organization that may now unknowingly be in violation of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) for not taking disclosure actions due to the fact that they are not aware of the situation.

I am upset that I was threatened with termination if word got out, as well as the fact that I was let go without any severance after many years of good service. It also bothers me that staff may have unknowingly gone into the affected area (I did) because we were not told that it may be dangerous or risky to do so.

I'm not threatening to go public or talk to press, which would essentially be blackmail. However, if there are grounds, I would threaten to take them to court if it would allow me to collect a fair severance package.
posted by masterbarnum at 12:14 PM on March 11, 2017

First I should declare that I am far from an expert and laws and regulations may vary... the mere presence of asbestos is not hazard. Asbestos that is proper and intact isn't a hazard. It is when asbestos is disturbed, failing, handled improperly, etc that creates the hazard. I am not an expert in asbestos but I have had some experience in dealing with its presence.

I am assuming proper professionals determined there was not a current hazard and it sounds like the company was following proper abatement proceedings. However, from your post, I gather that you might have a perceived idea about asbestos that may not be rooted in fact and felt necessary to convey that.

Should you lie? No. By the same token, you should deal with the facts and not speculate or let personal perception take over. I think its fair of the company to expect you to convey fact.

You don't say what it was your company wanted you to tell people and I think that is important. If the company was asking you to lie that is one thing, but if they were asking you to convey the facts and not insert speculation then that is something else.
posted by jasminejakes at 1:24 PM on March 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Wherever you're located, there are probably dozens of mesothelioma lawyers who would know the ins and outs of this situation, and maybe love to get a crack at the case. That is, if you want to continue the unceremoniousness of your firing.
posted by rhizome at 4:41 PM on March 11, 2017

If your actual damages are low, a prospective attorney would want to know if the organization's actions violated a law that permits for awarding of punitive damages. (And also the ability of the organization to pay, through insurance or assets.)
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 7:08 PM on March 11, 2017

Most whistleblower laws do not protect employees of small operations. And to the best of my knowledge, jasminejakes is right that the mere presence of asbestos is not a hazard. If the asbestos was recently uncovered, and then disturbed, it is (I believe) very unlikely to cause illness. It takes chronic exposure for that.

I'm sorry about your job loss, and it does feel retaliatory, but I think you likely haven't got a case. The good news is you probably also haven't got a medical case, either.

Best of luck moving forward. I hope you love your next employer, and that you are able to look back on this as a door opening.
posted by Capri at 8:53 PM on March 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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