A manufacturing facility worker in New Jersey was fired for refusing to work in conditions that lacked safety measures for protecting workers from COVID-19, according to an October 23 Kaiser Health News article.
Charles Collins took safety precautions early in the pandemic: in March, he and his coworkers wore protective face masks at their workplace. Additionally, a couple of Collins’ co-workers “had been out sick with flu-like symptoms,” according to the article.
However, Collins later received a text from management that admonished his usage of the masks and stated that “masks were to be used to protect workers from wood chips, metal particles and other occupational safety hazards,” according to the article. The text Collins received read, “We don’t provide or for that matter have enough masks to protect anybody from CORVID-19 [sic]!”
“I was shocked,” Collins told Kaiser Health News. “They weren’t taking it seriously.”
After taking a vacation, Collins was hesitant about going back to work when his coworkers told him that their workplace was not implementing COVID-19 safety measures. He voiced his concerns to the human resources department but was told to either “return to work or resign,” according to the article.
Collins decided to stay home and “says he was fired,” subsequently hiring a lawyer and filing “a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey under the state’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act,” according to the article. The Act “prohibits employers from firing, demoting or otherwise retaliating against workers who refuse to take part in activities they believe are incompatible with public health and safety mandates,” the article states.
The Kaiser Health News article also mentions the recent National Employment Law Project’s recent report that found the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has resolved only 2% of complaints made from the beginning of the pandemic through early August. This is a discouraging finding for whistleblowers who want to report safety violations at their workplaces — and Collins’ lawyer Juan Carlos Fernandez says that this group is increasing. Fernandez has seen “a significant uptick in inquiries from workers about safety concerns in recent months,” and many of the individuals who got in contact with him “say they were terminated after they asked for protective equipment on the job,” according to the article.
Collins’ former employer, ASO Safety Solutions, has not responded to requests for comment, nor has the law firm representing them. However, in responding to Collins’ complaint, the lawyer representing the company “denied that ASO has retaliated against Collins, asserting he had resigned,” according to the Kaiser Health News article.