- It's illegal to retaliate against workers who report unsafe and unhealthy working conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reminded employers April 8, while also urging employees who believe they've suffered such retaliation to report it to the agency immediately. Retaliation can include terminations, demotions, refusal to grant overtime or promotions or reductions in pay or hours, the agency said.
- Employers are required to provide healthy and safe workplaces for employees under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, according to OSHA. The law also forbids retaliation against those who report violations and the agency, in its announcement, encouraged "[a]ny worker who believes that their employer is retaliating against them for reporting unsafe working conditions [to] contact OSHA immediately."
- OSHA added that it enforces the whistleblower provisions of more than 20 laws that cover various industries including airlines, commercial motor carriers, food safety, motor vehicle safety and public transportation.
Workers have already alleged they've been retaliated against for reporting or criticizing unsafe work conditions stemming from the pandemic. A Washington state emergency room doctor claimed he was fired for publicly calling on his employer, a hospital, to better protect patients and staff from COVID-19. The New York Times has reported on workers including a nurse, an Amazon warehouse worker, grocery store cashiers and flight attendants who say they risked their jobs to criticize their employers' response measures.
OSHA has noted that its standards to protect workers from SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19, include:
- Personal protective equipment standards, which require using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection when job hazards warrant it.
- Respiratory protection standards that make clear that when respirators are necessary, employers must put into place a comprehensive protection program.
- The general duty clause that requires employers furnish to each worker a place of employment free of recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
- Bloodborne pathogens standards that apply to workplace exposure to human blood and other potentially infectious materials.
- A hazardous communication standard that requires employers to protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals used for cleaning and disinfection.
State standards also can apply, OSHA said, observing that state laws may have even more stringent requirements. And according to OSHA regulations — and as it pointed out in its most recent reminder — "an employer may not retaliate against an employee when the employer knows or suspects that the employee has engaged in activity protected by the statute."
Of course, employers may still dole out legitimate, unrelated discipline, experts previously told HR Dive.