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Worker COVID-19 safety complaints may trigger whistleblower protection


As New York slowly turns the dial to open more workplaces after a prolonged stay-at-home period, employees and employers alike are understandably concerned about keeping the physical environment at work as safe and healthy as possible. Employers must comply with local, state, and federal work safety requirements. When an employee believes their employer has not done so, the employee may choose to complain to the employer or to government authorities, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the New York State Department of Health.

An employee who makes such a complaint is called a whistleblower and may be legally protected from retaliation for blowing the whistle on their employer. Illegal retaliation could include wrongful termination or other adverse employment actions like demotion or failure to promote, undeserved negative job performance reviews, loss of job perks, and others.

Allegation of retaliation against warehouse employee

Amazon has come under scrutiny for taking insufficient steps to protect employees from COVID-19. In late April, NPR reported that an Amazon employee in Staten Island was fired after he organized a protest demanding that the warehouse where he worked be shut down after several workers contracted COVID-19. The complaints against Amazon and the firing of this employee raised concerns with the New York State Attorney General, who is investigating these and other issues.

This worker who organized the protest had also reportedly complained to the New York State Department of Health regarding inadequate social distancing, insufficient workplace cleaning, and a failure to isolate employees who tested positive for COVID-19.

New York Attorney General looks into incident

The attorney general’s office wrote a letter to Amazon raising concerns about:

· Whether Amazon violated work safety rules

· Whether the employee’s discharge violated state whistleblower laws

· Whether other workers were fearful to raise safety concerns after the initial worker was terminated by Amazon

· Whether Amazon should close warehouses until it can follow disinfection protocols

NPR said Amazon denied that its response to the virus was inadequate and that it fired the employee for “violating quarantine and safety measures.”

In addition, CNBC reported that the attorney general asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate these issues, and that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio requested that the city human rights commissioner investigate whether the employee’s termination violated city law.

Moving forward

As we navigate the impact of coronavirus on employment law issues, employers and employees alike will have questions and concerns not only about workplace safety requirements, but also about laws and regulations dealing with retaliation and whistleblowing. If you have questions about your rights and responsibilities related to COVID-19, contact an experienced employment attorney.

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The Attorneys of Katz Melinger PLLC