The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was sudden and devastating, and even as the threat levels subside, the fallout endures. To be sure, the healthcare industry has long been on the forefront of battling the threat to public health posed by COVID-19. While there has been a broad and varied governmental response to the multitude of concerns arising out of COVID-19, a significant component of that has been the enactment and enforcement of laws and rules governing workplace safety—and nowhere more so than in healthcare facilities.
Of course, the healthcare environment has naturally been subjected to the most stringent requirements, including mandatory vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE). The safety-driven concerns in turn served as a catalyst for legislative and other governmental action to institute protections from retaliation to those who expose unsafe practices, i.e., “whistleblowers.”
At the federal level, OSHA has not only stepped-up enforcement of workplace safety concerns, but it has taken a prominent role in protecting workers against retaliation. In fact, OSHA recently released guidelines on how to file a Section 11(c) complaint for retaliation against employees who report COVID cases or health concerns to their employers. There has been a substantial increase in the number of whistleblower complaints to OSHA arising out of alleged pandemic safety-related violations. Not to be left out, the U.S. Attorney has set up its own hotline specifically for COVID-related claims.
In the context of state law, some states had existing whistleblower protections for healthcare workers reporting certain health or safety violations, including civil remedies. Many cases are working their way through the courts. One example is in California, where a court held that a former healthcare employee could proceed with a claim after she objected to being assigned to assess patients entering a senior living center when she had been exposed to COVID-19 (and was later terminated). Clark v. Calson Mgmt., LLC, Case No. BCV-20-101901 (Cal. Super. Ct. Sept. 8, 2020).
Despite existing whistleblower protections and increased OSHA federal regulatory enforcement, legislative efforts to enact protections at the state level have gained momentum. Indeed, there has been a particular focus on healthcare. Last year, New York Labor Law Sec. 741 was amended and broadened to provide further protections for health care workers who speak out against what they believe to be “improper quality of workplace safety” for employees or patient care to the media or within their company. Colorado passed a similar law. Various other states, including Maine, Arizona, Minnesota, Washington, and others are contemplating similar legislation. Under the New York statutory scheme, a whistleblower must initially bring the unsafe activity, policy or practice to a supervisor’s attention and allow a reasonable opportunity for correction. But, if retaliation ensues, violations can be costly.
As protections proliferate and enforcement intensifies, it is more important than ever for healthcare employers to ensure that proper safety protocols are followed, reports of unsafe conditions are taken seriously, and key personnel are highly trained.