COVID Risks may be Lower in 2021, but Safety Rules Remain Important for Employers as Worker Complaints Increase

There is little question that effective vaccines and safety protocols have COVID-19 on the run in 2021, at least locally, and there is hope for eradicating the disease altogether. But while many may wish to celebrate this trend by letting down their COVID guards, employers must be wary not to do so. Recent months have brought a substantial number of  COVID-related employee safety complaints against employers. With local, state and federal agencies ready to investigate, issue corrective orders, and even levy fines, employers must remain vigilant with COVID safety measures for as long as they are legally mandated.

Employees can file COVID complaints with local, state or federal agencies. At the top of the enforcement pyramid, as it were, is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Its records reveal that employee complaints continue to roll in. They range from concerns about mask-wearing policies to social distancing issues to employers’ failures to notify them after a co-worker tests positive. In one perhaps rather extreme situation, OSHA fined an accounting office in Lynn more than $136,000 last month because it banned face coverings and ignored social distancing rules, among other things.  In other situations, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards has cited restaurants and other businesses because workers with COVID symptoms were permitted – sometimes required – to appear and work. This sort of conduct can make co-workers rather nervous.

The situation for employers promises to get more treacherous in the short term as OSHA prepares guidelines on COVID safety and, perhaps, is able to perform more inspections than it has to date. OSHA has initiated what it calls a National Emphasis Program to target COVID-19 safety violators and protect workers against retaliation for making complaints, which is illegal under the law. OSHA’s regulations already require employers to maintain safe workplaces, free from potential hazards to life or limb, and this applies to COVID. At the state level, numerous safety rules remain in place, including face-covering requirements and others around social distancing, hygiene, and keeping ill workers off job sites to reduce exposures. Until these rules are lifted, employers who fail to comply are putting their businesses at unnecessary, avoidable risk.