COVID-19 Retaliations are on the Rise: Here’s Why

The safety issues related to COVID-19 have been clear across the country for the past year. Many businesses have made sacrifices in an effort to keep their employees safe, from providing specific safety gear intended to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and instituting social distancing policies in the office to requiring employees to work from home in an effort to reduce or prevent the spread of the virus.

Unfortunately, not every company has taken those measures.

Some companies have chosen not to institute safety policies, in spite of clear instructions issued by OSHA regarding the management of COVID-19 in the workplace. Others may not enforce those policies, leaving employees in essential positions–many of whom still have immense concerns about COVID-19 exposure–at risk. 

Reporting COVID-19 Violations

Increasingly, employees who continue to work in essential professions are filing reports against their employers. They may report violations for a lack of health and safety compliance, or they might report violations regarding their ability to take time off after a COVID-19 diagnosis. Under the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employees have the right to report those violations–and they are protected from retaliatory behavior on the basis of those reports. 

Because of those rights, employees can safely report any violation of safety protocols in the workplace, including employers who do not require social distancing or masks, or employers who put their employees in undue danger in spite of the continued rise in case numbers. Many employees, frustrated with the “essential workers” label even as their employers refuse to protect them, have chosen to report their employers’ lack of effort. California has issued millions of fines related to COVID-19 violations, including:

  • Bars opening before they had the legal right to do so
  • Ignoring state regulations requiring staff to wear masks
  • Forcing employees to work in spite of possible or confirmed COVID-19 symptoms
  • Failing to alert employees that a coworker had tested positive for COVID-19

As the pandemic continued, complaints increased. Many employers had a hard time keeping up with increased sanitation measures and requirements. Others had a hard time staffing their businesses, thanks to staffing shortages and other challenges–and, as a result, may have pushed employees to get back to work sooner than mandated even if they fell ill. Those violations stacked up, even in big-name businesses–and many employees chose to report those violations. 

Retaliations Against Reporters

Employees have the right to report health and safety violations in the workplace, including–or perhaps critically–COVID-19 safety violations. Under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers cannot retaliate against whistleblowers: the employees who share that information and push for better working conditions. 

Employers cannot fire whistleblowers for those actions. 

Whistleblowers are protected after they report a violation. Employers cannot fire them for respecting the law and insisting on safe working conditions, in spite of the fact that those safe conditions might create a financial challenge for the employer. 

Employers cannot discriminate against whistleblowers.

Whistleblowers cannot be passed over for promotion or denied opportunities in the workplace due to their decision to report those violations in the workplace. 

Employees cannot have their hours cut as a direct result of reporting violations.

Whistleblowers have their hours and time at work protected in addition to their employment. They have the right to report health and safety violations, including COVID-19 violations, without having to worry that it will cost them their jobs. 

In general, many health and safety reports are anonymous: that is, an employee can report violations and have OSHA conduct an inspection without attaching their name to the report. However, in spite of this protection, many employers manage to find out who reported the violation–and they may act against those whistleblowers, in spite of the fact that there are regulations in place to help protect whistleblowers. 

Why Retaliation Claims are Rising

Many employers, despite the fact that they know their employers are protected, retaliate against them for reporting health and safety violations anyway. Essential businesses, especially those that have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, may use a variety of excuses to justify their decision to move whistleblowers out of the workplace. In reality, however, many of them do not wish to face the fines and penalties associated with health violations–or to pay the cost of instituting those vital safety measures. As a result, they may use a range of excuses to justify their decision to cut an employee’s hours or fire an employee. 

Employers may claim that they struggle with staffing costs.

Despite the fact that many businesses across the country are struggling to find an adequate number of workers, many businesses, including essential businesses, also continue to struggle with staffing costs. Profit margins have been tight for many businesses in the past year, making it increasingly difficult for employers to staff their businesses. 

Employers often claim that they have another reason for firing an employee or cutting their hours.

Frequently, employers claim that they have another reason for firing the employee. They may look for excuses, including writing the employee up for not-so-obvious “violations” that do not really fit the requirements of the job position, or they might simply choose to cut an employee’s hours without clear explanation. In right-to-work states, it can prove even more difficult to determine why a specific employee might have been let go or had his hours cut. 

Did You Face Retaliation for Reporting COVID-19 Violations?

If you reported COVID-19 safety violations in your workplace and faced retaliation for it, you may have the right to financial compensation for your employer’s decision, including, in some cases, legal costs and the cost of your missing wages. If you have faced retaliation for whistleblowing, an experienced employment lawyer can take a look at your situation and give you more information about your rights. Contact Perkins Asbill, A Professional Law Corporation today at 916-446-2000 to learn more about your rights under employment law.