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What Protections Do Employees Have When Reporting Unsafe Working Conditions During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

U.S. Department of Labor’s Anti-Retaliation Reminder to Employers

In light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recently issued a news release reminding employers that it is illegal to retaliate against workers who report unsafe and unhealthy working conditions during this time. If an employer terminates, demotes, denies overtime or promotion, or reduces pay or hours because an employee reports unlawful working conditions related to COVID-19, that employee may have a cause of action under one of the more than twenty whistleblower statutes enforced by OSHA. OSHA’s enforcement is vast, covering many different industries and areas of the law, including but not limited to: airlines, commercial motor carriers, consumer products, environmental, financial reform, food safety, motor vehicle safety, healthcare reform, nuclear, pipelines, public transportation agency, railroads, maritime, and securities and tax law.

What rights do employees have?

Under federal law, employees have the right to a safe workspace, free from known health and safety hazards. If an employee believes that he or she is working in an unsafe or unhealthy environment, the employee has the right to report the unsafe or unhealthy work environment to OSHA. Generally, this “protected activity” includes reporting conduct that the employee reasonably believes violates a relevant federal law, filing a complaint about a violation, and testifying, assisting, or participating in a proceeding related to a violation. As long as employees have a good faith belief that a violation occurred or could occur, then employees enjoy protection from retaliation for reporting unlawful work environments.

OSHA’s response to COVID-19

Considering the current state of affairs, the standards for safe and healthy work environments have drastically changed. OSHA has provided several resources for employers regarding safe practices during this global pandemic, including recommendations for preparing the workplace for COVID-19. Specifically, OSHA has addressed safety practices for retail workers, package delivery workers, manufacturing workers, construction workers, and most recently, workers in the meatpacking and processing industries. All of these industries involve a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19. For each classification of workers noted, OSHA published alerts that include safety measures employers can implement to protect employees. Additionally, OSHA provided ten steps that all workplaces can take to reduce exposure to COVID-19.

While OSHA’s recommendations are not mandated law, employers should heed the advice to protect themselves from potential workplace violations. Even during a pandemic, employers must ensure that their workplaces comply with federal law. If an employee believes that his or her employer is not in compliance with the law, OSHA has encouraged employees to report the violation.

If you feel you are in an unsafe or unhealthful work environment, have been retaliated against for reporting unsafe working conditions, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724.