The coronavirus pandemic has brought increased attention to many worker health and safety issues. From what counts as respiratory protection to the risk for heat illness to the growing need for mental health resources, COVID-19 is forcing us to look at many issues in a new way. Another concern many workers have to deal with is potential retaliation for speaking up about COVID-19 safety protocols on the job.
Many employers across the U.S. and Canada have taken steps to protect workers from COVID-19 by stepping up cleaning and sanitizing efforts, screening workers before they enter the workplace and supporting work-from-home options, among other measures. However, there are also cases of employers failing to take adequate steps given the risks workers are facing. Over the last several months, we’ve seen health care workers, agriculture workers and warehouse workers all walk off the job. As of August, federal and state OSHA programs had received more than 20,000 workplace complaints related to COVID-19.
“No worker should have to choose between their health and their job,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Being part of a union gives workers a voice and the collective power to speak out when needed so they can protect their own health and the health of their loved ones at home.”
The NELP report found large disparities between how Black and White workers felt about speaking up in the workplace. Black workers were twice as likely to say they avoided raising concerns to their employer than White workers. The NELP report suggests that “for Black workers in particular, these beliefs are grounded in the reality that structural racism has made them especially vulnerable to contracting the virus and suffering serious complications or dying.”
Data from the Economic Policy Institute shows that Black, Hispanic and Latino workers are disproportionately represented in jobs that have been considered essential during the pandemic. In New York City, for example, 75 percent of frontline workers are people of color. This may help explain why Black workers surveyed by NELP were much more likely to be concerned about working conditions and less likely to speak up.
Workers are put in a difficult position when health and safety protocols fall short or when workers aren’t sure if the measures in place go far enough to protect their health. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) report “Silenced About COVID-19 in the Workplace” found that 63 percent of workers said they were concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus at their workplace. However, only 27 percent of workers said they were able to raise these concerns with their employer and receive a satisfactory response. Many workers admitted they didn’t speak up for fear of retaliation. When asked whether they or their coworkers were punished for raising concerns over coronavirus in the workplace, about 12 percent of workers answered “yes” or “maybe.”
Stopping Retaliation in Today’s Workplaces
Federal law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions. OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program is set up to do just that. Despite these protections, the reality is that many workers continue to work in hazardous conditions because they can’t afford not to.
Employers can send the message that retaliation won’t occur at their workplace by implementing a formal anti-retaliation program. Key elements of an effective anti-retaliation program include:
- Management leadership, commitment and accountability
- Systems for hearing and resolving employees’ safety and compliance concerns
- Systems for receiving and responding to reports of retaliation
- Anti-retaliation training for employees and managers
- Program oversight
Across the U.S., city and state governments are taking action to protect workers. Following reports of retaliation at several workplaces, Philadelphia became the first city in the country to pass a law protecting essential workers who speak up about working conditions during COVID-19.
“We were met with resistance, hostility and disregard by our managers and by the company’s executive leadership” said Niko Kwiatowski, a worker at MOM’s Organic Market in Philadelphia. “As our voices grew louder one of my coworkers was fired, and many more were reprimanded. … It was only after the actions of whistleblowers like myself and my coworkers … that my employer felt obligated to comply.”
Workers have the right to refuse work they believe is unsafe without fear of retaliation. One of the many benefits of being in a union is that workers not only gain a collective voice, but also gain the ability to communicate concerns to management through stewards, business agents and business managers, and if necessary, through a formal grievance process. The LHSFNA encourages discussion and cooperation between labor and management so that workers aren’t put in the difficult position of deciding whether to refuse work they believe is unsafe. Preventing retaliation is good for workers and good for business.