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COVID concerns at work? Here's what to know

Workplace safety complaints expected to keep growing amid COVID-19 pandemic
Posted at 4:00 AM, Jul 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-21 08:09:37-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Returning to the office after working remotely presents safety concerns for many employees.

Over the past few months at 41 Action News, viewers have reached out, worried for their safety because their employers aren't taking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines seriously.

Kansas and Missouri fall in OSHA Region 7, where the agency has received 382 complaints so far. Nationwide, there are more than 7,000 complaints.

Jason Gunter, a labor and employment law attorney, shared advice for employees in those situations. First, he advised communicating concerns with a boss or manager in writing before deciding not to show up for work.

"Employees don't want to come into work because they're afraid, and that's understandable," Gunter told the Scripps station in Cape Coral. "But right now, if an employee does that, even if they're legitimately afraid because of COVID-19, they should know that they won't have any source of protection."

Under Kansas City, Missouri's emergency order, businesses are required to accommodate employees with underlying health conditions or those who have to care for a minor or sick family member.

While some cities and counties have protections for workers included in their orders, there currently is no enforceable COVID-19 standard on the federal level.

"The CDC and OSHA, right now, those are just guidelines," Gunter said.

The first page of OSHA's "Guidance on Returning to Work" explicitly states that the document is "not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations."

Despite receiving 382 complaints, OSHA has only completed 27 inspections in the region.

Still, Gunter said employers who don't follow guidelines or properly disclose cases of COVID-19 can be held legally accountable for widespread outbreaks in the workplace.

"Industries will be held liable because they failed to disclose COVID-19, and people could have died or perhaps did die," he said.

Federal law does require employers to provide employees with a workplace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees."

Employees in KCMO who feel they are being forced to work in conditions without appropriate personal protective equipment can contact the KCMO Health Department's Environmental Health Division via email at Environmental.Health@kcmo.org or by calling 816-513-6315.

People who work in Kansas and have complaints specific to the state's mask mandate should contact local district attorneys, who have been tasked with enforcement.

In Johnson County, violations can be reported to the consumer fraud hotline at 913-715-3003.

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