The New York Times recently ran an article on the “painful reprisals” that some employees are experiencing for refusing to go back to what they feel are unsafe conditions.
As businesses reopen after being shut down because of COVID-19, some of these workers are being fired outright. Others are being reported to state officials for having refused work, as a U.S. Labor Department guidance memo has urged, leading to the suspension of their unemployment benefits.
”Their choices are: ‘Do I go back and risk my life, or say No and risk being kicked off unemployment and not be able to pay my bills?’” Rachel Bussett, an employment lawyer in Oklahoma, told the Times.
Oklahoma has even set up a “Return To Work” email address so businesses can report employees who turn down jobs. At least 179 have done so, the paper said.
However, employees indeed have the right to refuse unsafe work free of retaliation from employers.
In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that right in Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall, citing an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that workers can refuse to perform a task if four conditions are met: The worker, where possible, has asked the employer to correct the hazard, but the employer failed to do so; the employee has refused to work in “good faith” because of genuine concern of imminent danger; a reasonable person would agree that the conditions present a real danger; there isn’t enough time to get the hazard corrected through regular enforcement channels.