COVID-19: Protections for Health Care Workers

Although COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is fundamentally a global public health crisis, it also has serious implications for healthcare workers all over the country.

Due to the essential nature of their services, many health care workers experience the greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19 and must continue to work under dangerous and acutely stressful conditions.  If you are a licensed or certified health care worker facing retaliation because you raised concerns about your employer’s response to COVID-19, there are laws in place to protect you from this retaliation.

Protections under Maryland law

For example, under current Maryland law, a health care employer may not take or refuse to take any personnel action as reprisal against an employee because the employee:

  • Discloses or threatened to disclose to a supervisor or board an activity, policy, or practice of the employer that is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation;
  • Provides information to or testifies before any public body conducting an investigation, hearing, or inquiry into any violation of a law, rule, or regulation by the employer; or
  • Objects to or refuses to participate in any activity, policy, or practice in violation of a law, rule or regulation.

Maryland employees are protected when the following steps have been undertaken to report violations of health care rules or laws concerning health and safety:  the employee has a reasonable, good faith belief that the employer has, or still is, engaged in an activity, policy, or practice that is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation; the employer’s activity, policy, or practice poses a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety; and the employee has reported the activity, policy, or practice to a supervisor or administrator of the employer in writing and afforded the employer a reasonable opportunity to correct the activity, policy, or practice; or you have followed your employer’s corporate compliance plan for such notifications.

Protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Act

The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects employees from retaliation for reporting or opposing wrongful, illegal, or unsafe workplace practices, such as failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).  Retaliatory acts may include terminations, demotions, denials of overtime or promotions, reduction in pay or hours, discipline, intimidation, harassment, or threats, among other adverse actions.  It is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for submitting a complaint regarding dangerous working conditions.

Employees who believe they have been retaliated against for complaining about an unsafe work environment, must submit your complaint to OSHA within 30 days of the retaliatory act.  Employees may submit a complaint online or call or email their local OSHA office.  OSHA may find the employer unlawfully retaliated against you if its investigation concludes that the employee engaged in protected activity; the employer knew about or suspected the protected activity; the employer took an adverse employment action; and the protected activity motivated or contributed to the adverse employment action.

The OSH Act also protects employees’ rights to refuse to perform dangerous work if all of the following conditions are met:

  • If the employee asked the employer to eliminate the danger and the employer failed to do so;
  • The employee genuinely believes that an imminent danger exists;
  • A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and
  • Due to the urgency of the risk, there isn’t enough time to have the danger corrected by regular enforcement methods such as requesting an OSHA inspection.

OSHA recommends that employees take the following steps if they feel they must refuse to perform a task due to safety concerns:

  • Ask the employer to correct the hazard or assign a different task;
  • Tell the employer you will not perform the task unless the hazard is corrected; and
  • Remain at work until your employer instructs you to leave.

Some states have their own OSHA-approved workplace safety plans called “State Plans.” If you work in one of the 22 states with an OSHA-approved plan, including Maryland and Virginia, it may provide greater protections than the federal law.

The lawyers at Correia & Puth, PLLC are committed to ensuring that health care employees are protected when they take a stand for workplace safety and hold employers accountable for wrongdoing, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.  If you are aware of wrongful workplace conduct, or if you fear or have experienced workplace retaliation because of your reports, please contact us right away to discuss how best to navigate the issues and to protect against unlawful retaliation.

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