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Whistleblowers—Public Heroes in an Uncertain Time for Workplace Safety

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Whistleblowers—Public Heroes in an Uncertain Time for Workplace Safety

Whistleblowers—Public Heroes in an Uncertain Time for Workplace Safety

This morning, Dr. Rick Bright is testifying on Capitol Hill. Dr. Bright is known for being fired from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for opposing the use of a drug falsely touted by Trump as a possible coronavirus treatment. His testimony today, which is in progress during this writing, has emphasized safety measures he believes the federal government should be making to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of whistleblowers such as Dr. Bright reporting workplace safety like never before. Workers who still must report to a physical work site depend on their employers taking serious and effective measures to protect them. While many conscientious employers engage in such safety practices, others have thrown their employees under the bus, forcing them to risk their health for the companies’ profits—literally profiting off the lives of their workers.

Perhaps the most famous heroic COVID-19 whistleblower is China’s Li Wenliang, a doctor who sounded the alarm about the seriousness of the virus in its early days only to be sanctioned by the Chinese government and later die of the illness. Beyond Dr. Bright, the United States has seen its fair share of whistleblowing as well, especially concerning unsafe working conditions. Holding employers accountable for workplace safety is paramount during the pandemic, given that the workplace is one of the places where the virus is most likely to spread. Whistleblowing employees are necessary to bring employer safety inadequacies to light.

But despite the importance of whistleblowing during these times—or perhaps because of it—the government and private companies have fired employees in retaliation for blowing the whistle. Like the federal government’s termination of Dr. Bright, Amazon, one of the most powerful and wealthiest companies in the world, fired several warehouse employees, including Staten Island’s Christian Small, for raising concerns about workplace safety and attempting to organize a response. This prompted former Amazon VP Tim Bray to resign “in dismay” because of the company’s decision to fire whistleblowers. Bray noted in an open letter that the six or so whistleblowers who faced retaliation from Amazon at that time were all people of color, women, or both. At the end of the letter, Bray decried power imbalances in the workplace, writing that “warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker…[s]o they’re gonna get treated like crap….” Amazon has profited during the pandemic.

Other employees throughout the country have similarly faced retaliation for raising workplace safety concerns. An emergency room physician in early hard-hit Washington State, Ming Lin, was fired for giving a newspaper interview about his concern that his employer had inadequate testing and protective equipment. Navy aircraft carrier captain Brett Crozier was fired for writing a letter about the Navy’s failure to provide him with sufficient means to combat the virus (he later contracted it). Nurse Lauri Mazurkiewicz was fired for emailing her colleagues that that N-95 masks were more effective at protecting against the disease’s spread than the masks provided by the hospital where she worked, then wearing an N-95 mask to work—she has since filed a lawsuit.

It is especially wrong for employers to retaliate against whistleblowers, given the historic state of unemployment—jobs are precious and hard to come by for terminated whistleblowers trying to feed their families. Now more than ever, whistleblower protection laws are vital, as work environments have become less safe at employment sites where employees’ health is not taken seriously enough. For instance, meat packing plants, deemed essential by the Trump administration and already dangerous working environments even in the absence of COVID-19, are hotbeds for the virus to spread, leading to public concern and at least one federal lawsuit. Nursing homes, especially those who serve indigent or lower-class senior citizens, have been hit hard. Essential retail stores, such as grocery outlets, have also been seen suddenly dangerous working conditions.

Employees at workplaces like these are understandably concerned about workplace safety. Consequently, thousands of employees have courageously filed workplace safety complaints against their employers related to the coronavirus. These complaints have involved poor safety practices such as failing to provide personal protective equipment like gloves, masks, disinfectant, and cleaning supplies; failing to follow or implement social distancing requirements; forcing employees to work alongside sick co-workers; and requiring employees to report to work on-site in non-essential sectors. Recently, the CDC revised its guidelines to allow asymptomatic workers to continue working, which may lead to further workplace safety issues as asymptomatic carriers infect their coworkers.

Concerned employees can file workplace safety complaints with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the corresponding California state agency Cal/OSHA, or their local county health departments if the county has a separate health order in place.

Now, more than ever, we need heroes willing to step forward. One of the only good bits of news in this pandemic has been that heroes are emerging like never before to protect their colleagues, themselves, and their families.

Do not let the fear of unlawful retaliation stop you from blowing the whistle. If you face workplace retaliation for raising safety concerns, contact Bryan Schwartz Law.

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