The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented health crisis, with healthcare workers being the ones called upon to fight it on the front lines. Public health experts and epidemiologists agree that this is also a crisis which the American health care system is totally ill-suited to take on. For example, even before this crisis, doctor and nurse shortages, understaffing, and “just in time” inventory already created issues for healthcare workers and their patients. Now that hospitals are being hit with surge of COVID-19 patients, the ongoing crisis has become excruciatingly worse.

Luckily for healthcare workers in California, there are laws to protect against unsafe workplaces and those employers who wish to retaliate against them for speaking out. It is therefore up to hospitals and other healthcare employers to respect and follow these workplace protections. If they do not, employees should not hesitate to report unsafe working conditions and any retaliation that results from speaking out against them. 

Healthcare employees, like all employees in California, have the right to a safe and healthy workplace. Employers must also correct any unsafe conditions when they learn of it, and do so quickly if it is a serious hazard, such as failing to take necessary measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19. If an employer continues allowing their workplace to become unsafe, the law also prohibits them from making employees work there. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals should have employees who largely perform office work to work from home so as to prevent unnecessary exposure to the Coronavirus.  

In their quest for profit, and despite the laws on the books, employers often do allow unsafe and even deadly conditions in the workplace to persist. The news is already replete with stories of hospitals requiring workers to work without personal protective equipment (PPE), making them re-use unsterile PPE, or otherwise putting them in danger. Employees in this situation are (unfairly) forced to decide whether to do something about it. Luckily, in California, employees are protected for opposing and refusing to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and cannot be retaliated against for voicing such opposition.  California law also protects healthcare workers, specifically, from being retaliated against for speaking up to protect patient care. These protections apply to all employees in California, regardless of their immigration status. The laws also stay in force, despite the dire situation that hospitals face in this pandemic, whether due in part to their own lack of allocating resources, or otherwise. 

If you are a California employee facing unsafe working conditions, you can initiate a complaint with Cal/OSHA by going here: https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/complaint.htm or calling 1-866-924-9757

About the authors: Kyle Todd is a Los Angeles workers’ rights attorney who represents clients in legal cases around California. More information about his practice can be found at: www.kyletodd.com. Kevin Cauley is a Los Angeles-based health care attorney who specializes in representing physicians and surgeons, nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, physical therapists and other licensed health care providers. More information about his practice can be found at www.kevincauley.com.

If you have been fired or otherwise retaliated against for making complaints of unsafe working conditions, do not hesitate to contact one of them to see if they can assist you with your situation: 

Kyle Todd, P.C.: (323) 208-9171, info@kyletodd.com

Kevin Cauley, P.C.: (213) 444-6036, kevin@kevincauley.com 

1 Cal. Lab. Code § 6400(a) provides: “Every employer shall furnish employment and a place of employment that is safe and healthful for the employees therein.”

2 Cal. Lab. Code § 6401.7(b) provides: “The employer shall correct unsafe and unhealthy conditions and work practices in a timely manner based on the severity of the hazard.”

3 Cal. Lab. Code § 6402 requires: No employer shall require, or permit any employee to go or be in any employment or place of employment which is not safe and healthful.”

4 Cal. Lab. Code §§ 1102.5; 6310; and 6311.

5 Cal. Lab. Code § 1278.5; Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 510, 2056

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