New bill coming to protect whistleblowers on pandemic workplace safety

Since the beginning of the pandemic, employees across industries have voiced concerns about workplace safety.

Healthcare workers have marched in picket lines, demanding more PPE.

“They’re in horrible working conditions,” said Talisa Boad, a spokesperson for Teamsters Local 117 during a MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care strike.

Grocery workers and King County Metro drivers have protested, too, all asking for safer working conditions.

Complaints have poured into the state, but many people have been too afraid of retaliation to speak out. Some who have complained have lost their jobs.

Now state senator Karen Keiser says Washington needs to do better. She hopes to put protections into law for whistleblowers.

Keiser brought up the example of a Bellingham emergency room doctor who worked at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. He was fired after publicly speaking out about ER preparations in late March.

“I find that totally inadequate,” Keiser said. She is planning to introduce a bill called the “Health Emergency Labor Standards Act,” or HELSA. It would apply to all front line employees — those who cannot work remotely.

“It takes a real strength of will and fiber to put your hand up and say, ‘I object.’ Those people need to be protected,” Keiser said.

Keiser will introduce the new bill after the next legislative session starts in January.

In a Sept. 24 meeting, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries said over 60 days, it received “tens of thousands” of safety complaints, compared to the 500 or so they’d usually receive in that time frame.

“That tells you the kind of anxiety and crisis situation we were dealing with,” Keiser said.

The new bill would bring major fines for employers who retaliate or discriminate against employees who “raise reasonable concerns about infection control in the workplace,” according to a one-page brief on the bill.

“We were really caught unprepared last spring,” Keiser said. “We’re a global economy now, and viruses are not respecters of boundaries. We need to prepare for the next outbreak,” Keiser said.

The HELSA bill will also include many other protections for front line workers, including paycheck protection if you get sick and child care for workers if schools are closed.

One-page brief on HELSA:

Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA)

1) Requires creation of a workplace infectious disease standard

Directs Labor and Industries to establish a safety standard rule for workplaces where workers are exposed to contagious or infectious diseases.

2) Establishes new employment standards during a pandemic

  • During a public health emergency, as declared by the president or the governor, the following employment standards go into effect:
  • Provides a presumption for workers’ compensation coverage during a public health emergency for “HELSA Frontline Employees” (see definition).
  • Requires employers to accommodate employees’ voluntary use of PPE. If employers require employees to wear masks and gloves, the employer must provide the required equipment.
  • Provides protection from retaliation or discrimination for employees who raise reasonable concerns about infection control in their workplace. Provides whistleblower protection and permits qui tam action.
  • Mandates reporting requirements: employers of 50 or more employees must notify LNI when more than 10% of their workforce becomes infected during a public health emergency.
  • Lowers the eligibility threshold for paid family and medical leave when the qualifying period includes a public health emergency.
  • Requires every employer of “HELSA Frontline Employees” who earn up to $1.00 over the legal minimum wage, to provide health emergency pay of an additional 25% of the state minimum wage for each hour worked.
  • Requires every employer to provide additional paid sick leave when an employee is exposed or infected and unable to work or telework. Full time employees become eligible for 80 additional hours of paid sick leave (prorated for part time employees). Provides a dollar-to-dollar credit toward state B & O tax for any dollars paid as leave under this provision if there is no federal assistance for similar leave.
  • Requires every employer with 50 or more employees to provide employer-paid child care leave when schools and child care centers are closed. Provides a dollar-to-dollar credit toward state B & O tax for any dollars paid as leave under this provision if there is no federal assistance for similar leave.

HELSA FRONTLINE EMPLOYEES:

  • First responders, including emergency medical service providers, paramedics, law enforcement officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers
  • Employees working at a hospital, health care facility, nursing home or assisted living facility
  • Food processing, distribution, meatpacking and farmworkers (including floriculture)
  • Maintenance, janitorial and food service workers at any facility treating patients
  • Drivers and operators employed by a transit agency or public entity providing mass transportation to the general public
  • Daycare and child care workers at licensed facilities
  • Workers employed by a pharmacy, drug, retail or grocery store open to the public
  • Workers in restaurants and hotels open to the public
  • Home care aides and home health aides
  • Correctional officers
  • Educational employees teaching classes in person and on site