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As the number of restaurants and shops opening up to in-person dining and shopping increases, so do the instances of exposure to COVID-19. Though it's responsible for businesses to alert their patrons when they learn of positive cases among customers or staff, some are choosing to hide that information, fearing that they may lose revenue or be forced to close again.
Now, some employees are taking matters into their own hands to ensure that possible exposure to COVID-19 at their place of work is common knowledge, and some are even facing consequences for it. Is it legal for employees to be fired for blowing the whistle on positive COVID-19 cases at their place of work?
A nurse who formerly worked at Northwestern Memorial Hospital claimed in a lawsuit filed in March that she was fired in retaliation for her complaint that the hospital provided employees with inadequate protection from COVID-19. She claims that she brought attention to employees' possible exposure to the coronavirus because of the hospital's actions by sending out an email with this information, only to be fired the next day.
A bartender at Taste Bar and Kitchen in Houston tweeted that customers from the past three weeks should "get tested and quarantine" and included screenshots alleging that another staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. The original tweet received thousands of likes, and her follow-up post claimed that she had been fired for blowing the whistle, though the business owners disputed this claim.
Other similar instances of retaliation following COVID-19 whistleblowing have been in the news, including the case of U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier's publicized plea for help in dealing with COVID-19 onboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and subsequent firing.
Federal legislation mandating that businesses report positive COVID-19 cases does not yet exist, though some states like California have enacted certain workplace protections for employees in order to create safer working conditions.
Workplace retaliation lawsuits focus on cases where employees are fired or otherwise penalized after reporting harassment or discrimination within the company, rather than them publicizing information about an infectious disease like the coronavirus.
However, the Whistleblower Protection Act allows retaliation claims for "substantial and specific danger to public health or safety," which could be a possible avenue that employees who have been fired for whistleblowing over COVID-19 could take to claim wrongful termination. A business deliberately concealing the spread of an infectious disease on their premises certainly poses a danger to public healthy and safety.
If you or someone you know has been fired for whistleblowing over COVID-19 cases, an employment law attorney can help you protect your rights and explore your options for taking legal action.