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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Can Florida Employees Can Be Fired For Testifying Against Employers?

 Florida has a statute that was clearly intended to protect employees who testify against employers: 

92.57 Termination of employment of witness prohibited.—A person who testifies in a judicial proceeding in response to a subpoena may not be dismissed from employment because of the nature of the person s testimony or because of absences from employment resulting from compliance with the subpoena. In any civil action arising out of a violation of this section, the court may award attorney s fees and punitive damages to the person unlawfully dismissed, in addition to actual damages suffered by such person.

Every lawyer I knew in Florida for 35 years has thought this protected witnesses who testified in depositions under subpoena. But a Florida appeals court ruled this year that a deposition is not a "judicial proceeding" and thus employees can be fired for testifying against their employers.

So is that it? Can employers retaliate against employees for testifying against them, even if they are subpoenaed to do so?

Not so fast, evil employers. Because employees are still protected under several anti-retaliation statutes. First, if they are testifying about race, age, sex, national origin, religious, disability or other illegal discrimination or discriminatory harassment, they are protected under anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and/or the Florida Civil Rights Act.

Second, the Florida Whistleblower Act protects employees who are fired for objecting to or refusing to participate in illegal activity of their employer. So if you are called to testify, make sure you say you object to whatever it is that they did that was a violation of a statute, government regulation, or ordinance. This also includes discrimination, but covers a myriad of other legal violations. Unfortunately, if it's just something like a breach of contract or other common law violation, you aren't protected under this statute.

There are lots of whistleblower laws out there, so if you are called to testify in a deposition and your testimony will hurt your employer, you will want to get some legal advice as to how to protect yourself before you go.

And the Florida legislature needs to fix this statute, because firing someone who is subpoenaed should be illegal, whether for a deposition or an actual court hearing.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

OSHA Guidance For Workplaces With Unvaccinated Workers

 OSHA has issued its guidance for workplaces that still have unvaccinated workers. Among other things, they want employers to grant paid time off for workers to get vaccinated. Here's what they say on this:

Except for workplace settings covered by OSHA's ETS and mask requirements for public transportation, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID-19 exposure in any workplace, or well-defined portions of a workplace, where all employees are fully vaccinated. Employers should still take steps to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces, or well-defined portions of workplaces. 2

Employers should engage with workers and their representatives to determine how to implement multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including:

  1. Grant paid time off for employees to get vaccinated. The Department of Labor and OSHA, as well as other federal agencies, are working diligently to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccinations. CDC provides information on the benefits and safety of vaccinations. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for tax credits under the American Rescue Plan if they provide paid time off for employees who decide to receive the vaccine and to recover from any potential side effects from the vaccine.

  2. Instruct any workers who are infected, unvaccinated workers who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and all workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home from work to prevent or reduce the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. Ensure that absence policies are non-punitive. Eliminate or revise policies that encourage workers to come to work sick or when unvaccinated workers have been exposed to COVID-19. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for refundable tax credits under the American Rescue Plan if they provide paid time off for sick and family leave to their employees due to COVID-19 related reasons. The ARP tax credits are available to eligible employers that pay sick and family leave for qualified leave from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. More information is available from the IRS.

  3. Implement physical distancing for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in all communal work areas. A key way to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers is to physically distance them from other unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk people (workers or customers) – generally at least 6 feet of distance is recommended, although this is not a guarantee of safety, especially in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.

    Employers could also limit the number of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in one place at any given time, for example by implementing flexible worksites (e.g., telework); implementing flexible work hours (e.g., rotate or stagger shifts to limit the number of such workers in the workplace at the same time); delivering services remotely (e.g., phone, video, or web); or implementing flexible meeting and travel options, all for such workers.

    At fixed workstations where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers are not able to remain at least 6 feet away from other people, transparent shields or other solid barriers (e.g., fire resistant plastic sheeting or flexible strip curtains) can separate these workers from other people. Barriers should block face-to-face pathways between individuals in order to prevent direct transmission of respiratory droplets, and any openings should be placed at the bottom and made as small as possible. The posture (sitting or standing) of users and the safety of the work environment should be considered when designing and installing barriers, as should the need for enhanced ventilation.

  4. Provide unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers with face coverings or surgical masks, unless their work task requires a respirator or other PPE. Such workers should wear a face covering that covers the nose and mouth to contain the wearer's respiratory droplets and help protect others and potentially themselvesFace coverings should be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents. They should fit snugly over the nose, mouth, and chin with no large gaps on the outside of the face. CDC provides general guidance on masks.

    Employers should provide face coverings to unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers at no cost. Under federal anti-discrimination laws, employers may need to provide reasonable accommodation for any workers who are unable to wear or have difficulty wearing certain types of face coverings due to a disability or who need a religious accommodation under Title VII. In workplaces with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, employers should consider acquiring masks with clear coverings over the mouth for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers to facilitate lip-reading.

    Unless otherwise provided by federal, state, or local requirements, unvaccinated workers who are outdoors may opt not to wear face coverings unless they are at-risk, for example, if they are immunocompromised. Regardless, all workers should be supported in continuing face covering use if they choose, especially in order to safely work closely with other people.

    When an employer determines that PPE is necessary to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers, the employer must provide PPE in accordance with relevant mandatory OSHA standards and should consider providing PPE in accordance with other industry-specific guidance. Respirators, if necessary, must be provided and used in compliance with 29 CFR 1910.134 (e.g., medical determination, fit testing, training on its correct use), including certain provisions for voluntary use when workers supply their own respirators, and other PPE must be provided and used in accordance with the applicable standards in 29 CFR 1910, Subpart I (e.g., 1910.132 and 133). There are times when PPE is not called for by OSHA standards or other industry-specific guidance, but some workers may have a legal right to PPE as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Employers are encouraged to proactively inform employees who have a legal right to PPE as a reasonable accommodation for their disability about how to make such a request. Other workers may want to use PPE if they are still concerned about their personal safety (e.g., if a family member is at higher-risk for severe illness, they may want to wear a face shield in addition to a face covering as an added layer of protection). Encourage and support voluntary use of PPE in these circumstances and ensure the equipment is adequate to protect the worker.

    For operations where the face covering can become wet and soiled, provide unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers with replacements daily or more frequently, as needed. Face shields may be provided for use with face coverings to protect them from getting wet and soiled, but they do not provide protection by themselves. See CDC's Guide to Masks.

    Employers with workers in a setting where face coverings may increase the risk of heat-related illness indoors or outdoors or cause safety concerns due to introduction of a hazard (for instance, straps getting caught in machinery) may wish to consult with an occupational safety and health professional to help determine the appropriate face covering/respirator use for their setting.

  5. Educate and train workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in language they understand. Train managers on how to implement COVID-19 policies. Communicate supportive workplace policies clearly, frequently, and via multiple methods to promote a safe and healthy workplace. Communications should be in plain language that unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers understand (including non-English languages, and American Sign Language or other accessible communication methods, if applicable) and in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities. Training should be directed at employees, contractors, and any other individuals on site, as appropriate, and should include:
    1. Basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread and the importance of physical distancing (including remote work), ventilation, vaccination, use of face coverings, and hand hygiene.
    2. Workplace policies and procedures implemented to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards.

    For basic facts, see About COVID-19 and What Workers Need to Know About COVID-19, above and see more on vaccinations, improving ventilation, physical distancing (including remote work), PPE, and face coverings, respectively, elsewhere in this document. Some means of tracking which workers have received this information, and when, could be utilized, by the employer, as appropriate.

    In addition, ensure that workers understand their rights to a safe and healthful work environment, whom to contact with questions or concerns about workplace safety and health, and their right to raise workplace safety and health concerns free from retaliation. This information should also be provided in a language that workers understand. (See Implementing Protections from Retaliation, below.) Ensure supervisors are familiar with workplace flexibilities and other human resources policies and procedures.

  6. Suggest that unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests wear face coverings, especially in public-facing workplaces such as retail establishments, if there are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in the workplace who are likely to interact with these customers, visitors, or guests. This could include posting a notice or otherwise suggesting unvaccinated people wear face coverings, even if no longer required by your jurisdiction. Individuals who are under the age of 2 or are actively consuming food or beverages on site need not wear face coverings.

  7. Maintain Ventilation Systems. The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads between people more readily indoors than outdoors. Improving ventilation is a key engineering control that can be used as part of a layered strategy to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air and the risk of virus transmission to unvaccinated workers in particular. Some measures to improve ventilation are discussed in CDC's Ventilation in Buildings and in the OSHA Alert: COVID-19 Guidance on Ventilation in the Workplace. These recommendations are based on ASHRAE Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Adequate ventilation will protect all people in a closed space. Key measures include ensuring the HVAC system(s) is operating in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions and design specifications, conducting all regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance procedures, maximizing the amount of outside air supplied, installing air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher where feasible, maximizing natural ventilation in buildings without HVAC systems by opening windows or doors, when conditions allow (if that does not pose a safety risk), and considering the use of portable air cleaners with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in spaces with high occupancy or limited ventilation.

  8. Perform routine cleaning and disinfection. If someone who has been in the facility within 24 hours is suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19, follow the CDC cleaning and disinfection recommendations. Follow requirements in mandatory OSHA standards 29 CFR 1910.1200 and 1910.132133, and 138 for hazard communication and PPE appropriate for exposure to cleaning chemicals.

  9. Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths: Under mandatory OSHA rules in 29 CFR 1904, employers are responsible for recording work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on OSHA's Form 300 logs if the following requirements are met: (1) the case is a confirmed case of COVID-19; (2) the case is work-related (as defined by 29 CFR 1904.5); and (3) the case involves one or more relevant recording criteria (set forth in 29 CFR 1904.7) (e.g., medical treatment, days away from work). Employers must follow the requirements in 29 CFR 1904 when reporting COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations to OSHA. More information is available on OSHA's website. Employers should also report outbreaks to health departments as required and support their contact tracing efforts.

    In addition, employers should be aware that Section 11(c) of the Act prohibits reprisal or discrimination against an employee for speaking out about unsafe working conditions or reporting an infection or exposure to COVID-19 to an employer. In addition, mandatory OSHA standard 29 CFR 1904.35(b) also prohibits discrimination against an employee for reporting a work-related illness.

    Note on recording adverse reactions to vaccines: DOL and OSHA, as well as other federal agencies, are working diligently to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations. OSHA does not want to give any suggestion of discouraging workers from receiving COVID-19 vaccination or to disincentivize employers' vaccination efforts. As a result, OSHA will not enforce 29 CFR 1904's recording requirements to require any employers to record worker side effects from COVID-19 vaccination through May 2022. OSHA will reevaluate the agency's position at that time to determine the best course of action moving forward. Individuals may choose to submit adverse reactions to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

  10. Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards: Section 11(c) of the OSH Act prohibits discharging or in any other way discriminating against an employee for engaging in various occupational safety and health activities. Examples of violations of Section 11(c) could include discriminating against employees for raising a reasonable concern about infection control related to COVID-19 to the employer, the employer's agent, other employees, a government agency, or to the public, such as through print, online, social, or any other media; or against an employee for voluntarily providing and safely wearing their own PPE, such as a respirator, face shield, gloves, or surgical mask.

    In addition to notifying workers of their rights to a safe and healthful work environment, ensure that workers know whom to contact with questions or concerns about workplace safety and health, and that there are prohibitions against retaliation for raising workplace safety and health concerns or engaging in other protected occupational safety and health activities (see educating and training workers about COVID-19 policies and procedures, above); also consider using a hotline or other method for workers to voice concerns anonymously.

  11. Follow other applicable mandatory OSHA standards: All of OSHA's standards that apply to protecting workers from infection remain in place. These mandatory OSHA standards include: requirements for PPE (29 CFR 1910, Subpart I (e.g., 1910.132 and 133)), respiratory protection (29 CFR 1910.134), sanitation (29 CFR 1910.141), protection from bloodborne pathogens: (29 CFR 1910.1030), and OSHA's requirements for employee access to medical and exposure records (29 CFR 1910.1020). Many healthcare workplaces will be covered by the mandatory OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard. More information on that standard is available on the OSHA website at [link]. Where the ETS does not apply, employers are required under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, to provide a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm .

The full guidance, which includes other requirements for workplaces during COVID, is here