Imagine suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, reporting it, and then being fired for seeking medical attention. Toxic work environment? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says yes.
Poisoned, Then Fired
A Texas hotel is in hot water with OSHA. In January 2019, an employee of All Seasons Hospitality and Investments notified her employer she felt ill following exposure to carbon monoxide. She asked her supervisor to call an ambulance, but he refused.
The employer also threatened to fire the employee if she sought medical attention. Given her options, she chose medical treatment over workplace harassment and headed to the hospital. Then, she was fired for it.
The Wild West of Labor Laws?
In many ways, states such as Texas may seem like lawless land when it comes to labor laws, favoring the employer over workers’ rights:
- In 2019, Texas ranked in the bottom 30 percent of best states to work in according to an analysis by Oxfam America.
- In contrast, it ranked #3 in a 2020 study of best places to start a business.
Some of that, of course, is because of the economic growth that states such as Texas are experiencing, but you would be remiss to deny that labor laws also play a part in why businesses move to or start up in the employer-friendly states.
Under Texas law specifically, lunch breaks aren’t mandated, hours worked aren’t restricted, employers must pay the federal minimum wage, and there’s no personal income tax. You can work your employees to the bone and pay the bare minimum for it, too. Does this sound like an employer’s dream? It might, but expect to experience a high turnover rate and an increased risk of litigation and administrative complaints if you stick to the above standards.
Hold Your Horses
Although certain states may be hesitant to burden employers with restrictive labor laws, the federal government isn’t quite as lax. If you haven’t heard of it, there’s a division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) known as OSHA. It plays a key role in seeing that employers don’t cross the line from cost-efficient to inhumane. Expect the agency to be more aggressive under the Biden administration.
OSHA was created in 1970 through a Congressional act. It’s the agency’s job to set out and enforce rules that protect employees from hazardous work environments.
In 1989, Congress then passed the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), and OSHA created the Whistleblower Protection Program, which enforces the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and its more than 20 whistleblower statutes. The statutes protect employees from retaliation for reporting various workplace violations, such as being fired after complaining about carbon monoxide poisoning.
Under the WPA, employers are barred from firing, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, reducing pay, disciplining, threatening, or harassing employees for reporting suspected illegal activity or unsafe working conditions.
Skip the Penalty and the PR Scandal
If an employee has a complaint about her health or a concern for her safety, it’s an employer’s duty to hear her out and address the matter accordingly. Failure to do so will likely result in an OSHA violation. If you think you can make amends with a fine (which can range from $975 to $13,653 per violation), all agency citations are public information, posted on the newsroom section of its website for all to see and share.
As a best practice, skip the headache and call an ambulance immediately if one of your employees seems ill or asks for medical assistance. Additionally, make sure your workplace is free of hazards that can injure employees or any site visitors.
Jacob M. Monty is an attorney with Monty & Ramirez LLP in Houston, Texas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.