Thursday, February 16, 2017
Demotion of Cleveland airport whistleblower appears to have been in retaliation, OSHA finds
By Leila Atassi
The Cleveland (OH) Plain Dealer
Cleveland Hopkins airport employee Abdul-Malik Ali, shown here during a 2015 interview with cleveland.com reporters and editors, received a preliminary finding from OSHA this week, stating that the airport and city appear to have demoted him in retaliation for alerting the FAA of runway safety issues.
CLEVELAND, Ohio – The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a preliminary finding that a Cleveland Hopkins International Airport employee appears to have been demoted in retaliation for sounding the alarm on runway snowplowing problems and should be reinstated to his former position as airfield maintenance manager.
In a letter this week to the city of Cleveland, OSHA Assistant Regional Administrator Mary Ann Howe wrote that the results of the agency's nearly two-year investigation suggest that Abdul-Malik Ali was warranted in blowing the whistle on a lack of de-icing chemicals and inadequate staffing on snow removal crews in recent winters. (Read the full letter in the document view below.)
The letter goes on to say that Ali's demotion – the day after he met with an inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration to report the deficiencies – appears to be a form of retaliation for speaking out. That could constitute a violation of a federal law that protects employees from retaliation for reporting violations of FAA rules related to air carrier safety, the letter states.
"The [city] has not demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same unfavorable personnel actions in the absence of Complainant's protected activities," the letter says.
Howe emphasizes that the agency's findings are not yet final and said the city has 10 business days to provide additional evidence supporting its position. OSHA also invited the city to propose a settlement.
A city spokesman declined to comment Wednesday, stating that the matter is the subject of pending litigation.
Ali's complaint to the Department of Labor in 2015 states that in February of that year, he told FAA inspector Michael Stephens that his crews had been understaffed in violation of an agreement the airport had reached with the FAA three months earlier, spelling out how many field maintenance employees must be on duty to combat snow and ice.
The following day, then-Airport Director Ricky Smith removed Ali from his 15-year post as manager of field maintenance.
Ali said he was transferred to the job of "assistant to the deputy commissioner," instructed to clear out his office, moved to what he called a "mop closet" behind the cab booking stand on the terminal baggage level at Hopkins and given "make-work" assignments such as counting trashcans.
The city responded by pointing out that Smith, at the time, was unaware of what Ali had told the FAA, and that Ali's conversation with the inspector was not the reason for his demotion.
Instead, the city asserted, Smith reassigned Ali because of a long history of complaints that he was a poor manager and because of an incident – coincidentally on the day Ali spoke with the FAA inspector -- in which Ali was "too intoxicated to come into work during a snow event."
Ali contends that he was off the clock at the time and was drinking a beer at home when he was ordered to return to the airport.
The city called it the final straw that led to his transfer.
In the following months, however, the FAA validated Ali's report of staffing shortages that led to runway snow and ice control problems.
In September 2015, FAA officials sent the city notices of violations, listing dozens of dates when staffing at Hopkins fell far short of requirements, leaving inches of snow and ice uncleared from the taxiways and runways.
Some of the most egregious infractions stemmed from a day in March of that year, when the airport's field maintenance crew was understaffed on all shifts -- with only four out of the required 18 maintenance operators working third shift -- despite a forecast calling for several inches of snow.
As a result, snow and ice accumulated on runways, pilots refused to land, reporting poor braking conditions, and one taxiway went without anti-icing chemicals until well after midnight, the FAA found.
The airport also failed to alert air carriers of the poor conditions and to deter planes from taxiing or landing on slick, hazardous surfaces, according to the FAA.
The FAA proposed a civil penalty of $735,000. Last May, the city agreed to pay a $200,000 fine and pledged to improve its snow and ice control plan as part of a settlement with the agency. The city, however, has maintained that the incidents in question posed no risk to the flying public.
While the FAA was investigating, Smith announced that he would be leaving the post he had held since 2006 to serve as the CEO and executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, responsible for overseeing public-use airports statewide.
Ali's attorney, Subodh Chandra, said in an interview Wednesday that Ali feels vindicated by the findings of the FAA and OSHA. But he remains "hurt and baffled by the fact that no one presently in charge seems to be willing to do the right thing."
"It is no shock that OSHA has determined that the city retaliated against Mr. Ali for reporting safety violations to the FAA," Chandra said. "But what remains shocking is the apparent continued unwillingness of the present airport administration and the mayor to take Mr. Ali out of the broom closet to which he was relegated and put him back in charge of keeping the traveling public safe. We hope that at long last that will change."