The Charlotte Observer — A journalist was fired after reporting a newsroom insect infestation to federal authorities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Now the department is suing the Texas newspaper, alleging the Killeen Daily Herald illegally fired a worker for reporting health and safety issues, according to an Aug. 29 news release.
The city hall reporter and editor first complained about what she thought were fleas — which were later identified as “biting midges” — at her desk after a co-worker had brought his cat into the office, according to the complaint filed Aug. 29 in the Western District of Texas. She complained via email on May 8, 2021, about two weeks after she was hired.
She and another co-worker were bitten, authorities say, but a bug spray she had tried did not kill the insects.
A few days later, the general manager told her a pest control company sprayed the newsroom and he “apologized for the discomfort,” according to the lawsuit. Her co-worker was also told not to bring his cat into the office again.
But nearly a month later, on June 1, the journalist emailed managers and human resources to say she took samples of the bugs to the Bell County Extension Office.
The general manager replied, “we would be curious to know what Bell County Ag says” so they could better consult with pest control, according to the complaint.
On June 2, she emailed him back to say the bugs were identified as “no-see-ums” or “biting midges” — tiny insects that can be hard to see, prosecutors say. Extension agents explained that pest spray wouldn’t kill them, but they recommended vacuuming up any dead bugs, spraying down chairs and desks, and spreading diatomaceous earth, a powder used to kill small insects, in the area.
She volunteered to vacuum her work station and try the spray, according to the Department of Labor.
Killeen Daily Herald did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News on Aug. 30.
Her manager replied that because he hasn’t received any other complaints, and because pest control said the bugs would be dead by now, he wasn’t going to have the company come back and spray again “without supporting evidence,” prosecutors said.
“I have small, pimple-sized bites all over my body. That’s evidence,” she replied back on June 2, 2021. “I have three containers of apple cider vinegar full of dead bugs that have come off of my body after working in your newsroom. That’s evidence.
“My complaint still stands: I continue to have issues with bugs at my work station,” she continued. “I’m happy to discuss the recommendations I provided you.”
On June 4, after none of the county’s recommendations were used, she filed a workplace safety complaint with OSHA, according to the lawsuit. That same day, pest control had returned to set insect traps around the newsroom.
The journalist’s next day of work was supposed to be Tuesday, June 8. But the day before she was to return, authorities say her access to work emails was disabled. She received an email saying not to return to work as the company investigated her claims.
OSHA emailed the Killeen Daily Herald on June 9, notifying the general manager of the workplace safety complaint.
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About six hours later, newsroom management told the reporter her workstation had been sealed off with a plastic tarp so the bugs could not escape. He told her not to return to work or email her supervisors until the investigation was complete, according to the lawsuit.
On June 11, she emailed the general manager asking for an update, authorities say.
And three days later, she was told the investigation was complete and pest control technicians did not find an infestation, according to the lawsuit. In a separate email also sent on June 14, she was fired.
Killeen Daily Herald says she was terminated “because she was observed wearing ear buds at work, called a co-worker ‘dude,’ and did not timely file a report,” according to the lawsuit. “OSHA investigated these reasons and found them to be pretext,” or fake reasons.
The department seeks an order requiring the newspaper to comply with federal anti-retaliation provisions, reinstate the reporter, pay her back wages and other compensation, and expunge her personnel record.
“When employers retaliate against their workers for reporting unsafe working conditions, the department will work vigorously to secure the appropriate legal redress for workers,” Regional Solicitor of Labor John Rainwater said in the news release. “The department is dedicated to ensuring safe and healthful working conditions guaranteed by the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
Killeen is about 70 miles north of Austin.