Virginia flooded with coronavirus complaints in the workplace

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As Virginia gets back to business under a new normal, some are a little jittery about heading back to the workplace. 8News has uncovered the state is investigating an increasing number of COVID-19 related complaints in the office.

The 8News inbox has been getting full too, with complaints from workers who claim they’ve been “terminated” for trying to “enforce social distancing,” to those who say their employer is “not providing PPE to workers concerned about COVID with their “pre-existing conditions.” 8News did some digging and uncovered the state is fielding calls and concerns as well.

As of May 1, 2020, Virginia’s Occupational Safety and Health program (VOSH) received nearly 3,000 calls and emails from employees with coronavirus related complaints. 8News has also learned the state is investigating more than 300 formally filed complaints.

“We have had multiple complaints and we take every complaint seriously,” said Megan Healy, the chief workforce advisor to the governor.

Healy says workplace safety is a main priority for Governor Ralph Northam. She told 8News the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, along with the help of the Virginia Department of Health, is logging and investigating every complaint.

Gov. Northam says, “They have the authority to investigate complaints and shut down a business that isn’t complying.” 8News has been told that hasn’t happened yet.

In a review of the commonwealth’s closed cases, complaints ranged from fast food workers concerned about a lack of cleaning and sanitizing to grocery store employees sounding the alarm on management not respecting social distancing to general concerns about an absence of precautions to protect workers from contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus.

Most of the complaints were validated and employers took action. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry said in a statement:

Employers are required to post a copy of VOSH’s correspondence where it will be readily accessible for review by employees; and provide a copy of the correspondence and the employer’s response to a representative of any recognized union or safety committee at the facility.  Complainants are provided a copy of the employer’s response.  Depending on the specific facts of the employee’s alleged complaint, an employer’s failure to respond or inadequate response could result in additional contact by the VOSH program with the employer, a referral to local law enforcement officials, an onsite VOSH inspection, or other enforcement options available to the VOSH program.”

Virginia Department of Labor and Industry

“This is a difficult time for any employer opening up their business,” said Adam Rosenthal, an employment lawyer with Shepphard Mullin who co-authored Employer’s Guide to COVID-19 and Emerging Workplace Issues.

As more businesses begin to reopen and skittish workers return, Rosenthal says employers should have a plan. “Companies should really think about having a covid czar,” he said.

The labor lawyer said Virginia has done a good job laying out industry specific guidelines on the state’s Forward Virginia website. Rosenthal also mentioned that the CDC and OSHA also outline company responsibilities.

“Employers have an extra duty which is to help stop the spread within their work environment and that is a challenge,” he told 8News.

For starters, businesses will need to step up their cleaning game. Peter Duncanson, director of commercial operations at ServiceMaster, which operates cleaning companies across the country, offered his advice to businesses with 8News.

“Think about our sinks, the handles, the areas that are being touched by multiple people throughout the day. And don’t forget about that drinking fountain,” he said.

If your business has a cleaning service make sure they’re increasing the frequency of sanitizing high touch points. After an office meeting Duncanson says think about the surfaces that were touched.

“Do we need to wipe things down again,” Duncanson said, “use our disinfecting wipes to wipe off a surface where someone else may have touched?”

At the office, store or plant, the CDC advises social distancing, face coverings and health checks. Rosenthal said companies can require it. He told 8News, “In the commonwealth and throughout the country the regulatory bodies have said employers can take temperatures. It’s the new normal.”

Businesses can require their patrons to wear a mask too. If a staff member does get sick, federal laws don’t require an employer to notify workers of an employee who tested positive for COVID-19. However, Healy recommends it.

“You should communicate it to all employees especially the employees the ones they have had contact with,” she told 8News. “You cannot mention the employee by name but say that there has been a positive test.”

If you feel unsafe at work you’re advised to talk with your supervisor or safety officer first. If that doesn’t work you should file a complaint. For those with underlying health conditions and concerns about returning to work FMLA, The Family Medical Leave Act, may cover you.

Under state code it is the duty of every employer to furnish employees safe with employment and a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards.

Anyone with concerns about workplace safety can file a complaint with OSHA by clicking here. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry has a dedicated email address that can be found here.

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