County improves protections for whistle-blowing employees calling out COVID-19 violations

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday passed an ordinance to protect employees against retaliation for reporting COVID-19 health violations at their workplaces. Complaints about workplace violations have been increasing as the pandemic drags on.

The new protections build upon a previously adopted ordinance that encouraged employees to join health councils that monitor workplace compliance. Under the new law, employers cannot take action against employees for joining the health councils.

“It’s an excellent step in the right direction,” Kurt Peterson, co-president of the hotel union Unite Here Local 11, said.

The county approved these protections to encourage more employees to speak out if their places of work are not keeping up with health orders, especially as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise. To enforce the protections, the county may fine businesses up to $10,000 per violation as well as offer legal support for employees who say they were fired or reprimanded for calling out their employers.

“By encouraging workers to report public health violations without fear of retaliation, this ordinance promotes public health and increases the effectiveness of public health requirements,” a memo to the board of supervisors read. “It is specifically needed because the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, causing further illness and death that fall disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color.”

As infections increase, the number of health code violation complaints has also increased.

Peterson said his union had filed approximately 50 health code complaints with the county’s department of public health. He said there has also been an increase in workers wanting to speak out against their employers for health code violations but being afraid they will lose their jobs. He said the biggest challenge workers face is wanting to inform guests when they do not adhere to mask and social distancing guidelines, but fearing their employee will lose the customer.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General reported in August  there was an increase in employees reporting health code violations since the start of the pandemic in March. In the report, the department found that OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had failed to carry out investigations of COVID-19 health violations.

“We found the pandemic has significantly increased the number of whistleblower complaints OSHA has been receiving,” the report read. “OSHA was challenged to complete investigations in a timely manner before the pandemic, and the potential exists for even greater delays now.”

The retaliation protections don’t affect Long Beach or Pasadena because they have their own health departments to enforce the health orders.

Long Beach enforces local health orders via the city’s Venue Task Force, which is made up of employees from code enforcement, health and human services and sometimes the police department.

The task force conducts unannounced inspections throughout the week, monitoring both weekday and weekend compliance, and responds to complaints. In some cases, the task force can issue administration citations or even a misdemeanor citation as warranted to reinforce compliance.

Long Beach spokeswoman Chelsey Finegan said an overwhelming majority of businesses have complied with the rules and are following all health and safety guidelines.

Those guidelines, though, are changing again.

LA County and Long Beach both issued new health orders this week in an effort to curtail the surging infections. As part of the health order, businesses would have to stop outdoor dining, a move that was met with furious backlash by small business owners who say the restriction would be the final nail in the coffin for some.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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