We need to protect whistleblowers as the coronavirus crisis opens the door for bad actors

April 14, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

High-profile whistleblowers of recent decades have been lifted up as heroes or villains who have changed the course of history with data dumps and leaked documents. But most whistleblowers are not Julian Assange or Edward Snowden; they are regular people who happen to discover something wrong. 

Health care workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic are exposing the mortal danger a lack of personal protective equipment is putting them in facing warnings, discipline, and firings from the hospitals they worked at in the process. A Staten Island Amazon worker who staged a walkout over what he believed were insufficient safety protocols was fired in late March.

These whistleblowers have ignited our national sympathy and grabbed the attention of lawmakers. New York City councilmember Brad Lander has formed a coalition that will introduce legislation that guarantees whistleblower protections for health care workers who raise safety concerns. And both New York City and the state are now investigating the Staten Island worker’s firing.

And on Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced what they’re calling an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights,” which includes a provision that would protect frontline workers who raise safety concerns from punishment.

These stories illustrate how important it is that society supports and protects whistleblowers. But how do we accomplish that?

First, and most importantly, workers need stronger legislation that defends them from employer retaliation. Lander’s legislation is critical, but it is confined to New York City. We need broader and stricter laws across this country that correct the imbalance of power that allows companies to throw money at a problem and move on. 

Such legislation should immunize essential workers who publicly voice health and safety concerns from employer retaliation. These protections should extend beyond health care workers to include fast food, grocery, and transit workers. Regulators should also be wary that employers might try to peg any disciplinary action taken against a whistleblower to an unrelated performance issue.

Second, the federal government should ensure that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which takes whistleblower claims for health and safety issues, is actually enforcing the law for workers. 

“The law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising safety and health concerns,” former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health David Michaels wrote in Politico last week, “yet when workers are fired for lodging complaints about safety conditions in their hospitals or warehouses, this administration has been mute.” A Washington Post investigation further illuminates OSHA’s tepid response, reporting that when Illinois factory workers expressed concern to the government that they were working shoulder to shoulder in violation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing rules, a local OSHA representative responded that “all OSHA can do is contact an employer and send an advisory letter outlining the recommended protective measures.”

Third, unions can be a significant voice on behalf of workers during the pandemic. Already, they have negotiated furlough agreements and pushed for protective gear for essential workers like janitors and flight attendants. But with only one in 10 wage and salary workers belonging to unions, most employees today are at-will, which means their employer can fire them for any reason (so long as it doesn’t break the law). That includes speaking out against management.

In non-union workplaces, organizing a union could help protect workers from whistleblower retaliation. The problem, though, is that unionizing is often a complex and lengthy process, made even more difficult by the fact that employees can’t gather in large groups right now. Case in point: Trader Joe’s management has pushed an anti-union message as workers have used the company’s response to the pandemic to reignite an organizing push.

Lastly, media professionals need to help whistleblowers tell their stories. While investigative reporters are writing essential stories about abuses within organizations, public relations and communications professionals are also playing a role. (The company I founded, Lioness, is a storytelling platform that would financially benefit from such work.) 

I saw this firsthand two years ago, when I launched a service that allowed people to quietly submit their employment troubles and receive legal advice. (The organization has since ceased operation.) What followed was an avalanche of stories which, had they reached the light of day, could have wreaked havoc on some of the biggest companies in our economy.

Most of these stories are collecting dust today. Many people I spoke to wanted to right the wrongs they experienced. But fighting your employer is usually a David vs. Goliath battle: In closed-door legal negotiations, whoever has the most resources has the upper hand. 

This is where public relations professionals like myself come in. We can offer our services to whistleblowers unfamiliar with pitching the media and help them to securely communicate their messages. With increased education and media training, these stories can be told in a way that enables workers to sound the alarm while protecting their identities and employment. 

These whistleblower stories inform us of public concerns we would not otherwise see. While our streets, businesses, and nightlife have gone dark as a result of this pandemic, let’s ensure whistleblowers can continue to shine a spotlight on abuses in the workplace.

Ariella Steinhorn is the founder of Lioness. She previously co-founded workplace rights organization Simone, led communications at Spin (owned by Ford) and Managed by Q, and was one of the first public affairs hires at Uber.

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