August 12, 2020

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August 12, 2020

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Virginia Employees Protected From Retaliation for Raising Concerns About COVID-19 Workplace Safety Issues

On June 29, 2020, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board moved forward with an emergency workplace standard to curb the spread of COVID-19. These standards would apply to all Virginia employers and places of employment under the jurisdiction of the Virginia Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Pursuant to 16 VAC 25-220, Emergency Temporary Standard, employers would be required to:

  • Mandate physical distancing on the job, i.e., “keeping space between yourself and other persons while conducting work-related activities inside and outside of the physical establishment by staying at least 6 feet from other persons. Physical separation of an employee from other employees or persons by a permanent, solid floor to ceiling wall constitutes physical distancing from an employee or other person stationed on the other side of the wall.”

  • Clean and disinfect all common spaces, including bathrooms, frequently touched surfaces, and doors at the end of each shift, and where feasible, disinfect shared tools, equipment, and vehicles prior to transfer from one employee to another.

  • Provide personal protective equipment to employees and ensure its proper use in accordance with VOSH laws, standards, and regulations applicable to personal protective equipment, including respiratory protection equipment when engineering, work practice, and administrative controls are not feasible or do not provide sufficient protection.

  • Assess the workplace for hazards and job tasks that could potentially expose employees to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 and ensure compliance with the applicable standards for “very high,” “high,” “medium,” or “lower” risk levels of exposure.

  • Inform employees of methods of self-monitoring and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure or are experiencing signs of forthcoming illness.

  • Notify their own employees who were at a worksite with an employee who subsequently tested positive for active COVID-19, other employers whose employees were also present, and the building/facility owner of the affected site within 24 hours of discovery of possible exposure.

  • Develop and implement policies and procedures for employees to report positive results from antibody testing, and while an employee who has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies may return to work, employers are not required to allow an employee who has received such a test to return.

In addition, the emergency workplace standard prohibits employers from:

  • Discriminating against or discharging an employee because that employee voluntarily provides and wears their own personal protective equipment, if such equipment is not provided by the employer, as long as that equipment does not create an increased hazard for the employee or other employees.

  • Discriminating against or discharging an employee who has raised a reasonable concern about SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 infection control to the employer, the employer’s agent, other employees, or a government agency, or to the public through print, online, social, or any other media.

These workplace safety standards are set to go into effect on July 15, 2020, and employers could be fined up to $13,000 for failing to comply.

The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance to employers to protect workers but has not adopted a binding rule. OSHA provided guidance to employers on preventing worker exposure to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 in March 2020, and in June 2020 it released guidance on returning to work. The guidance on returning to work states that employers should continue to be flexible and allow employees to work remotely when possible, use alternative business operations such as curbside pickup to serve customers if feasible, implement strategies for basic hygiene and disinfection at work, encourage social distancing, apply procedures for identification and isolation of sick employees, and provide employee training on the various phases of reopening and necessary precautions. Further, employers should not retaliate against employees for adhering to OSHA’s safety guidelines or raising workplace health and safety concerns. Though these guidelines are not binding, employers are bound by the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which requires that they provide a safe workplace free from serious hazards.

Virginia’s recently-enacted whistleblower protection law, which became effective July 1, 2020, will protect workers that disclose violations of the emergency workplace standard. In particular, the new Virginia whistleblower protection law provides a private right of action for an employee who suffers retaliation for “in good faith report[ing] a violation of any federal or state law or regulation to a supervisor or to any governmental body or law-enforcement official.” Va. Code § 40.1-27.3(A)(1).

The statute proscribes a broad range of retaliatory acts, including discharging, disciplining, threatening, discriminating against, or penalizing an employee or taking other retaliatory action regarding an employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, location, or privileges of employment because of the employee’s protected conduct. Id. at § 40.1-27.3(A).

A prevailing whistleblower under Virginia’s whistleblower protection law can obtain various remedies, including:

  • An injunction to restrain a continuing violation;

  • Reinstatement to the same or an equivalent position held before the employer took the retaliatory action; and/or

  • Compensation for lost wages, benefits, and other remuneration, together with interest, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. at § 40.1-27.3(C).

© 2020 Zuckerman LawNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 184

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About this Author

Jason Zuckerman, Whistleblower Litigation Attorney, Washington DC  Law Firm
Principal

Described by the National Law Journal as a “leading whistleblower attorney,” Jason Zuckerman litigates whistleblowe r retaliation, whistleblower rewards, wrongful discharge, and other employment-related claims. His practice focuses on representing senior executives and senior professionals in high-...

(202) 262-8959
Katherine Krems Zuckerman discrimination, sexual harassment, whistleblower retaliation
Attorney

Katherine Krems represents employees in discriminationsexual harassment, and whistleblower retaliation cases.  She is focused on finding creative solutions and maximizing her clients’ recoveries.  Prior to law school, she worked on policy reforms in Congress to strengthen the rights of workers, women, and marginalized groups.  During law school, she was Senior Articles Editor of the Federal Communications Law Journal and served as a student attorney with Rising for Justice and an intern at the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  Katherine has a law degree from the George Washington University Law School and an M.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and she has taught writing workshops for middle school students in the D.C. Public Schools.  She is admitted to practice in Maryland.

(202) 262-8959