About half the whistleblowers who responded to a survey by the nonprofit National Whistleblower Center in Washington said they were fired after reporting unlawful conduct. Most of the others said they faced on-the-job harassment or unfair discipline.
The report recommends that Congress pass legislation to protect all government and private sector whistleblowers from reprisals in the same way that existing laws shield from retaliation victims who report discrimination based on race or sex.
"The survey shows that people who blow the whistle perceive they are being discriminated against," said Stephen Kohn, the center's board chairman. "There's a strong need for greater legal protection."
A patchwork of more than a dozen federal laws now allows whistleblowers to fight employer reprisals in certain cases, such as airline safety and nuclear power plant violations. Legislation passed in July protects for the first time employees who report financial misconduct at publicly traded companies.
Workers who expose many other types of abuse - election fraud, campaign finance abuse, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation and the like - remain without legal recourse if an employer decides to retaliate, the report said.
An amendment to the homeland security bill pending in Congress would protect potential whistleblowers in the proposed huge new agency. The Bush administration opposes it as an unnecessary restriction on personnel policies.
Large businesses and industry groups often oppose more comprehensive whistle-blower protection laws, fearing they will inundate businesses with frivolous claims.
An official with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government agency that protects government workers from reprisals for whistleblowing, said she was not familiar with the report and could not comment on it.
Jane McFarland, the OSC's director of congressional and public affairs, said the agency investigates about 700 complaints a year from federal whistleblowers claiming retaliation and has a good success rate in helping them out.
The unscientific survey of both government and private sector whistleblowers was based on a random sample of 200 cases reported to the group this year.
About 51 percent of respondents said they reported fraud or criminal practices, while 19 percent exposed health and safety-related problems, 10 percent disclosed environmental problems, 12 percent complained of discriminatory practices and 9 percent found wrongdoing in the medical profession.
By Sam Hananel