NEW YORK – The U.S. Department of Labor is suing a Staten Island community health center and its CEO after they suspended and later fired an employee who reported coronavirus-related health and safety hazards, including possibly exposing staff to the virus and lack of proper social distancing protocols.
The employee raised concern to company management that in-person attendance at a March 2020 staff meeting could lead to transmission and contraction of the virus. The worker attempted to reschedule the meeting by telephone, but ultimately refused to attend the meeting in-person after management refused the scheduling change. The center and CEO later suspended and then terminated the employee.
“Employers who fire or punish workers because they have raised valid health and safety concerns, including those related to the coronavirus are not just breaking the law. This kind of illegal and coercive behavior can intimidate workers into silence, preventing them from reporting issues or conditions that put their health and well-being at risk,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Richard Mendelson in New York.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the department’s suit names Community Health Center of Richmond Inc. and CEO Henry Thompson and alleges they suspended, and then fired, the six-year veteran employee shortly after the employee reported a hazardous work condition to Thompson.
The employee later filed an anti-retaliation complaint with the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA found that the defendants violated Section 11(c)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act for suspending and terminating the employee because they engaged in the protected activities of making a good faith health and safety complaint and refusing to attend the in-person meeting.
“This suit sends a clear and strong message to employers. The coronavirus does not allow them to suspend or waive their employees’ workplace rights and the U.S. Department of Labor will not tolerate such illegal conduct. We will pursue appropriate legal remedies up to and including lawsuits when and where necessary,” said the department’s Regional Solicitor of Labor Jeffrey S. Rogoff in New York.
The department’s complaint asks the court to order the health center to:
Pay the complainant damages, plus interest, for all past and future lost wages and benefits resulting from the termination; appropriate front pay in lieu of reinstatement; reimbursement for costs and expenses; compensatory damages, including for compensation for emotional pain and distress; and exemplary or punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
Expunge from all personnel and company records references to the circumstances giving rise to their unlawful suspension and termination of the complainant.
Post a notice for employees stating that the defendants will not in any manner discriminate against any employee for engaging in activities protected by Section 11(c) of the OSH Act.
OSHA’s New York regional Office of Whistleblower Protection Programs conducted the investigation. Trial Attorney David J. Rutenberg of the department’s regional Office of the Solicitor in New York is litigating the case.
Community Health Center of Richmond Inc. operates three health centers on Staten Island providing medical and dental care to its patients.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act and 24 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, motor vehicle safety, healthcare reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, and securities laws. For more information on whistleblower protections, visit OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Programs webpage.