As quarantines and stay-at-home type orders continue across most of the United States, workers who are required to continue reporting to work are questioning the safety of their working environments. As employers and corporate citizens, safety should be the most important factor when making determinations as to whether it is essential for your workers to remain on-site.
Obviously, at major retailers such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart, home delivery and distribution is a major part of business, and it is essential for those companies to have workers on-hand in order to deliver goods. However, the difficulty arises in that many of the workers in the warehouses and other distribution locations are forced to work closely together, so the possibility of spreading the disease is far greater.
At Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, at least one warehouse worker tested positive for COVID-19. After the news of the infected colleague surfaced, another worker at the warehouse coordinated a walkout with fellow employees due to the company’s refusal to close and clean the warehouse. Allegedly, after the walkout, Amazon fired the employee for “putting the health and safety of others at risk.” According to the company, the employee violated the company’s quarantine policy by continuing to report to work despite coming into close contact with the infected co-worker, and being sent home on paid quarantine leave.
The employee claims he was only told to self-quarantine four days after his co-worker was sent home for testing positive for COVID-19, but two days before he organized the walk-out. He alleged he’d never seen a quarantine policy until the day he was terminated.
The merits of the claims are clearly up for debate, but the ultimate conclusion is that Amazon is now being investigated by the New York City human rights commission. Amazon could have another organization looking into it as well – the NLRB. There was no allegation that the employee in question here was a member of a union, but in the eyes of the NLRB, that doesn’t matter. The employee organized a walkout from the warehouse with co-workers over a term or condition of employment, i.e. workplace safety. Workers who engage in health and safety activities can be protected against employer retaliation under the NLRA if the activity is ruled to be “concerted activity.”
Employers can definitely expect employees to question the safety of operations during this health crisis and should be evaluating their health practices in order to keep the Coronavirus from spreading throughout workspaces. Employers should ensure that employee concerns are heard and taken into consideration, and document steps taken to remedy those concerns.
There needs to be a clear line drawn between an employee’s misconduct and the safety concerns the employee may be bringing forward. If you or your organization need assistance in drawing that line, or need help in keeping your workplace safe while dealing with employee performance concerns, contact the Wiley Law Office, for employee discipline advice that works.