Everybody is feeling the impact of COVID-19. As the virus spread from state to state, cases rising along the way, it sparked larger discussions about workplace safety. Some people are fortunate and can do their jobs from home for the time being. Others face a more difficult reality, with work that requires them to be on-site or an employer that insists they continue to come into the workplace.
Any employee talking openly about their workplace safety concerns should be aware: The law has their back.
Discussing safety concerns is a protected activity
While every state has its own specific employment laws, federal regulations apply nationwide. Here, we look to a federal law known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This act outlines certain employee activities that are protected – meaning an employer can not prohibit them.
These are known as “concerted” activities. This means employees can take part in them for their own mutual benefit or safety. Protected concerted activities include:
- Two or more employees discussing workplace safety concerns
- An employee discussing improvements to work conditions with their employer
In general, if you are an employee and talk about workplace safety issues – such as conditions that could lead to someone becoming dangerously ill – the law will very likely be there to support you.
Employees are protected against retaliation for making complaints to OSHA, provided the employee can show the employer knew about the complaint
As with all worker protections against retaliation, any viable claims to OSHA require proof of the employer’s knowledge of the complaint. Employees must communicate in a manner that will verify the employer’s knowledge, such as through an email, a recording, or a witness.
Health care workers have extra protections in Wisconsin under the Wisconsin Health Care Worker Protection Act (HWPA)
Wisconsin health care workers are additionally protected by raising complaints/concerns about patient safety either internally or externally to healthcare, law enforcement, or other agencies.
What employers can and cannot do
The COVID-19 situation has led to some unique questions for many employees. For example, can an employer take the temperature of employees as a screening measure? Or, can an employer require an employee to stay at home if they show symptoms? (The answer to both of those questions, by the way, is yes.)
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) discussed those types of scenarios in a recent update. The agency also took the time to make clear that it continues to enforce workplace anti-discrimination laws, even during this tumultuous period.
Remember, things can change abruptly at both a state and federal level. For example, the Family First Act paved the way for employees in certain situations to receive extra paid time off. Similar types of relief bills offering extra support to workers could come in the weeks ahead.
No matter what happens, in situations like the one we are currently in, the most powerful tool is knowledge. It’s not just about the virus itself, but also the laws and policies that protect America’s workers.