Viewpoint: COVID-19 OSHA Whistleblower Claims on the Rise as Virus Rages on

A recent report from the federal government revealing that workplace safety whistleblower claims have exponentially increased during the pandemic should give all employers pause – and should motivate you to take immediate steps to ensure you don’t find yourself on the receiving end of such a claim. What do you need to know about this dramatic rise and what can you do about it?

Phillip Bauknight
Federal Report Shines A Light On Massive Increase In Safety Whistleblower Activity

Last month, the U.S Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report finding that the number of OSHA whistleblower claims increased by 30% increase between February to May 2020 as compared to the same period during 2019, jumping from approximately 3,150 complaints in 2019 to approximately 4,100 complaints in 2020. In addition, the report noted that 39% of whistleblower complaints filed from February 2020 through May 2020 (approximately 1,600) were directly related to COVID-19. These complaints included allegations of retaliation for claiming violations of social distancing guidelines and failure to provide personal protective equipment.

The report also noted that a shortage of OSHA investigators, combined with an increase in complaints, has caused delays in OSHA’s ability to complete investigations. The OIG recommended to OSHA that it needed to fill the handful of open whistleblower investigator positions to address these issues, and also take additional steps to increase agency efficiency with respect to these claims. In response, Loren Sweatt, OSHA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, stated that she agreed with each of the OIG’s recommendations and vowed that OSHA would be making the reinforcement of the agency’s whistleblower program a “priority.” This means that there will soon be a full complement of agency investigators ready to visit worksites across the country, looking not only for safety concerns but examining possible retaliation claims against workers who raise such concerns.

Whistleblower Litigation Has Also Spiked In Recent Months

COVID-19 whistleblower complaints filed during the pandemic, however, have not been limited to those filed with OSHA. Since March 2020, there has been a surge of employee complaints across the country alleging violations of statutory whistleblower laws. In fact, Fisher Phillips’ COVID-19 Employment Litigation Tracker indicates that whistleblower/retaliation claims represent one of the largest categories of COVID-19 litigation.

As of mid-September 15, 136 of the 674 employment-related lawsuits have been related to alleged whistleblower litigation filed in federal or state court. According to the employment litigation tracker, California has the most virus-related workplace retaliation lawsuits with 30. New Jersey follows closely behind at 26. These claims are being filed by employees in a variety of scenarios, including the following:

What Can You Do?

Both the OIG report and the rise in COVID-19 related whistleblower complaints highlight that workplace safety complaints are on the rise with no indication of slowing down. While you cannot always prevent individuals from filing such complaints, there are steps you can take to help minimize the chances of a claim being filed and increase your organization’s legal exposure, which include the following:

In addition, you should listen to employee safety concerns and investigate employee complaints. You must be sure to diligently document the steps taken, and information obtained, during any workplace safety investigation. A strong documentary record can be the difference between significant liability and the ability to present strong defenses in any subsequent OSHA investigation or civil litigation.

For further information about COVID-19-related litigation being filed across the country, you can visit our COVID-19 Employment Litigation Tracker. Our COVID-19 Employment Litigation and Class & Collective Actions section also has a listing of our litigation-related alerts and team members handling these types of cases.