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Workplace Retaliation in the COVID-19 Era

Toby Graham /

Between an ongoing pandemic, massive unemployment, racial injustice, social unrest, and the ever-present possibility of extreme weather events, it feels like a miracle just making it through the week. If you’re an employer, you’re dealing with all the above as well as a massive list of new health and safety protocols.

The decisions you make in these tough times can multiply the challenges your employees face, and ultimately get your organization in trouble.

Think carefully before taking an action like firing someone, cutting their hours or pay, or reprimanding them in front of their co-workers. Common examples these days are punishing an employee for questioning whether your workplace is safe from COVID-19, or for filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Because disciplining or terminating an employee for speaking up about a workplace safety concern is a clear example of retaliation.

What’s retaliation?

Here’s a quick refresher on your legal obligations: Your employees have certain rights. If you discipline or terminate them for exercising those rights, you’ve engaged in retaliation, a form of employment discrimination prohibited by federal law.

EHS Daily Advisor’s Guy Burdick explains further:

“Employees have the right to speak up about hazards, potential violations of OSHA standards, and their safety and health concerns without fear of retaliation. Employees also may file a safety or health complaint with OSHA or a state agency, can request an inspection, and have the right to speak to an inspector.

Employees who feel they have encountered retaliation for exercising their rights under the OSH Act may file a whistleblower complaint but must file one within 30 days of the alleged retaliation.”

Employees have been exercising this particular right vigorously in the past few months. According to Burdick:

“Almost as soon as the first cases of community transmission were reported, OSHA and state agencies began receiving safety and health complaints related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Through May 13, OSHA has received a total 1,148 complaints related to COVID-19 hazards.”

Read “COVID-19: Avoid Retaliation for Health and Safety Complaints During Pandemic.”

It may be tempting to try to limit these complaints by taking action against people who complain, or by “making an example” of them. Well, “tempting” in the way robbing a bank is tempting—it might seem like a quick solution to a problem, but it’s one of the more dangerous courses of action you could choose to take.

Don’t retaliate against your employees. Particularly right now. Life—theirs and yours—is complicated enough. Here’s an even better idea – create an environment where an employee feels safe enough to not ever consider lodging a complaint. It’s not as hard as it seems, if you have some help.

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