With unjust firings resulting from requesting a mask, reporting feeling sick, or suggesting safer work protocols to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, thousands of workers are finding their rights on the job being violated without consequence, according to MassCOSH.
As complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers skyrocket during the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reporting workers suffering emotionally and financially, the Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and its partners say workers’ lives are at risk due to a slow and inadequate response from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
According to an Aug. 14 investigative report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s OIG, OSHA received more than 4,100 complaints of illegal retaliation against whistleblowers during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, from Feb. 1, 2020, through May 31, 2020. This is a 30-percent increase compared to complaints received during the same four-month period in 2019.
Despite the urgency of enforcing public health and safety laws to stop the spread of a deadly virus, OSHA has reduced the number of whistleblower inspectors. It now takes 279 days for OSHA to complete a whistleblower investigation, an 86 percent increase from 2010.
“OSHA was challenged to complete investigations in a timely manner before the pandemic and the potential exists for even greater delays now,” states the OIG report. “As COVID-19 illnesses and deaths continue to rise, OSHA needs to act quickly to investigate whistleblower complaints so employees feel protected when reporting unsafe working conditions.”
“The reality of the situation is people are getting sick and some are dying because of a disease they acquired on the job,” said MassCOSH Communications Director Jeff Newton. “But due to a botched government response, when workers speak up to demand better safety, they are finding themselves without protection and can become targets for retaliation. OSHA is failing to give workers the protection they urgently need when they report dangers that put their lives, their families, and the public at grave risk.”
This past June, the National Employment Law Project surveyed more than 1,100 workers nationwide and found that one in eight reported “possible retaliatory actions by employers against workers in their company who have raised health and safety concerns during the pandemic.” Black workers were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to report possible acts of employer retaliation.
“U.S. OSHA must act immediately implement the inspector general’s recommendations,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a close MassCOSH partner. “Add staff. Cut red tape. Do whatever it takes to make protecting whistleblowers a priority. When workers can safely speak out, we can save lives in the workplace, and protect our families and communities.”