Metra commuter rail

Metra is the commuter rail division of the Regional Transportation Authority of the Chicago metropolitan area. (Chicago Tribune Illustration)

The U.S. Labor Department says Metra violated federal law by retaliating against an employee who complained about safety and has ordered the commuter rail agency to give the whistle-blower $38,000 in overtime pay.

The 22-year Metra employee, identified only as a signalman, had his hours changed and his position eliminated after he filed the safety complaint, according to the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"An employer does not have the right to retaliate against employees who report safety issues," Nick Walters, OSHA's regional administrator in Chicago, said in a statement Tuesday.

"When employees can't report safety concerns on the job without fear of retaliation, worker safety and, in this case, passenger safety on Metra, becomes a serious concern," Walters added.

A Metra spokesman said the agency had just received the OSHA finding Tuesday and was reviewing it.

Metra can appeal the finding to an administrative law judge.

According to OSHA, the employee complained on Aug. 1, 2011, that signals were not being tested properly because of time constraints.

The employee said he did not have enough time during regular hours to complete required signal tests and asked to do the work on overtime.

After filing the complaint, the employee said he began to experience a reduction in overtime hours, and his position was eliminated, OSHA said.

The agency said its investigation found that Metra used the employee's complaint as a pretext to reduce his overtime and eliminate his position. Metra provided no explanation for the actions, OSHA said.

The employee, a union member, still works for Metra as a signalman but in a different position, according to OSHA.

rwronski@tribune.com

Twitter @richwronski