How Do I Handle an Unsafe Working Environment During COVID-19?

How the Pandemic Has Added an Additional Layer of Concern to Every Workplace

Experiencing an unsafe workplace in any scenario can be stressful. Employees are entitled to safe working conditions, and California has several regulatory mechanisms to ensure compliance and help resolve issues. However, the introduction of COVID-19 risks into the workplace has created an entirely new series of considerations in practically every working environment.

To combat the spread of COVID-19, California safety guidelines require physical distancing where possible, universal mask adoption, enhanced sanitation, and other measures specific to individual industries. In some fields, employers are obligated to provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE). Still, some employers are failing to live up to their obligations and follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

This neglect places both customers and employees at an elevated risk of transmitting what can be a deadly disease. If you are an employee working indoors around other people, your odds of contracting the virus can rise substantially, especially if your employer is not enforcing safety protocols. You may be wondering what options you might have in handling an unsafe working environment, especially when violations involve COVID-19 noncompliance. Below, we cover some of the options you can consider pursuing to resolve the problem.

Establish a Consistent Problem and a Failure to Enforce

In order for you to report a problem to any of the regulatory bodies we will discuss below, you must first establish the extent of the problem and ideally document a failure to fix it. Safety problems relating to COVID-19 must be chronic in nature; one-off incidents likely will not gain traction. For example, a single or handful of instances of customers refusing to wear masks probably does not constitute a reportable safety violation.

The violation must be more systemic in nature. For example, your boss might refuse to enforce customers’ wearing of masks or decline to wear one themselves. This is the sort of consistent problem that can be more readily documented and represents a failure on the part of the business to follow guidelines.

Attempting to formally confront your boss about a safety violation can be intimidating or even fruitless, depending on your employer. Many recommend attempting some level of organization before doing so. Consider talking to your fellow colleagues to see how they feel about the violation, and, if possible, approach your boss with a shared concern. Being constructive often leads to more positive results, so try and identify solutions, like a staff member posted at the door to remind patrons to wear masks. If you and your coworkers belong to a union, your union representative should probably handle all communications.

If the problem is particularly egregious, another option is to organize a work stoppage. It is legal for you to refuse “hazardous” work, and a refusal to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines likely qualifies under this definition. A stoppage should be a last resort, however, and should only be considered if your employer adamantly rejects your concerns and if the problems are so significant that you fear for your immediate safety.

It is unlawful for your boss to retaliate against you for raising a legitimate safety concern or refusing to perform unsafe work. This may not stop them from trying, however, so make sure you are prepared for any immediate financial consequences when raising an issue. If you do suffer retaliation, you are likely entitled to damages and should immediately speak with an employment lawyer.

Report the Problem to Cal/OSHA and/or Your County’s Department of Public Health

California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety, or Cal/OSHA, is the government body responsible for logging and addressing businesses’ safety violations throughout the state. Employees are encouraged to report violations to Cal/OSHA and are able to do so completely anonymously. Legitimate claims should prompt a Cal/OSHA inspector to conduct an announced or unannounced inspection of the premises. Reviews that discover noncompliance result in citations, including fines and orders to immediately resolve problems.

Dealing with Cal/OSHA can lead to headaches for many employers, and they will often do everything in their power to avoid an inspection. Sometimes even the suggestion of a report to Cal/OSHA can compel an employer to fix safety problems, though others may again attempt to unlawfully retaliate against you if they should discover that you are considering filing a complaint. Also bear in mind that Cal/OSHA has reportedly been flooded as a result of COVID-19 compliance problems, so if the issue needs immediate resolution, you should not necessarily expect Cal/OSHA to expediently act.

If your unsafe workplace is specifically related to COVID-19 compliance, your county’s Department of Public Health may be able to help. Because COVID-19 is so contagious, and because any particular transmission point can seed a larger community outbreak, many public health officials are taking reports of noncompliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines very seriously. You can file a report with your local county’s department, and, should the claim be well-founded, public health officials can order the business to shut down if they do not comply.

A Word on Addressing Problems Outside Formal Channels

Some employees have recently gone “viral” online by promoting unsafe working conditions on social media outlets. While this sort of exposure can call attention to a real problem and force an employer to make necessary changes, it can also place you in a vulnerable position. As we discussed above, your boss cannot legally retaliate against you for raising a safety concern, but they can potentially discipline or even fire you for violating conditions of your employment agreement. Your agreement may include clauses governing representation the company online. It is generally advisable to avoid foregoing official channels unless absolutely necessary, and you should review the language of your employment agreement before doing so.

If You Need Help with Unsafe Working Conditions or Retaliation, We Can Help

At Polaris Law Group, we have spent over 25 years helping employees exercise their rights throughout California. If you are having trouble resolving a workplace dispute stemming from COVID-19 safety compliance or have suffered retaliation for raising an issue, our employment attorney can assist you in exploring your legal options. We will do everything possible to recover any monetary damages you are owed and make sure your health and safety are protected in your workplace.

Do not wait to get in touch if you are experiencing retaliation or an unsafe working environment. Call (888) 796-4010 or contact us online today.

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