Employers should take care to design and administer their COVID-19 vaccination, testing, masking, accommodation, return-to work, discipline and other safety and employment policies and practices to defend against already high and rising risk that their organization may face charges of illegal retaliation or interference brought by an employee, a federal agency or both.
Already the most frequently frequently alleged form of discrimination for years, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) statistics show retaliation claims accounted for a staggering 55.8 percent of all charges filed with the EEOC in 2020, making retaliation the most frequently cited claim in charges filed with the agency above even charges of disability, race and sex.
Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic promises to add fuel to this trend by requiring already resource challenged employers to assimilate and administer evolving and often controversial or even arguably conflicting leave, safety, and other requirements with respect to an often assertive and in a politically charged and often fearful workforce.
To make matters worse, the EEOC, U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently announced a new joint initiative targeting investigation and enforcement of retaliation and interference claims against employers. According to the November 17, 2021 EEOC announcement of its involvement in the new initiative, the agencies see to end retaliation against workers who exercise their protected labor and employment law rights by collaborating among these civil law enforcement agencies to protect workers on issues of unlawful retaliatory conduct, educating the public and engaging with employers, business organizations, labor organizations and civil rights groups in the coming year.
In furtherance of this effort, the EEOC updated its COVID-19 technical assistance to include more information about employer retaliation under the Civil Rights laws the EEOC enforces in pandemic-related employment situations. Key points shared in this new technical guidance include:
- Job applicants and current and former employees are protected from retaliation by employers for asserting their rights under any of the EEOC-enforced anti-discrimination laws.
- Protected activity can take many forms, including filing a charge of discrimination; complaining to a supervisor about coworker harassment; or requesting accommodation of a disability or a religious belief, practice, or observance, regardless of whether the request is granted or denied.
- Additionally, the ADA prohibits not only retaliation for protected EEO activity, but also “interference” with an individual’s exercise of ADA rights.
While anti-retaliation protections enforced by the EEOC only apply to the exercise of rights under the federal equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, similar protections also apply under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act’s anti-discrimination provisions prohibiting some types of workplace discrimination based on citizenship status, immigration status, or national origin.
For purposes of these and other laws containing antiretaliation provisions, retaliation generallyoccurs when an employer (through a manager, supervisor, or administrator) takes an adverse action against an employee or applicant because the employee or applicant raised a concern, made a complaint or reported a concern about a workplace practice, condition or activity prohibited by the law, reported a suspected violation of law, participated in an investigation, or engaged in other protected activity under the law.
An adverse action is an action that could dissuade or intimidate a reasonable worker from engaging in a protected activity. Because adverse action can be subtle, it may not always be easy to spot. Examples
of adverse action include, but are not limited to:
- Firing or laying off
- Denying overtime or promotion
- Denying benefits
- Failing to hire or rehire
- Making threats
- Blacklisting (e.g., notifying other potential employers that an applicant should not be hired or refusing to consider applicants for employment who have reported concerns to previous employers)
- Reassignment to a less desirable position or actions affecting prospects for promotion (such as excluding an employee from training meetings)
- Reducing pay or hours
- More subtle actions, such as isolating, ostracizing, mocking, or falsely accusing the employee of poor performance.
Under each of these laws, the antiretaliation prohibitions may protect applicants and employees against adverse job action for in good faith making a complaint, cooperating in an investigation whether the employee or another party makes the complaint, asking for accommodations, asking questions about rights or policies that might impact of protected rights, expressing concerns about the appropriateness of employer practices covered by these laws, or engaging other actions, communications or behaviors relating to protected rights that the employee believes he or another employee enjoys, employers need to use care both in responding to employees and in administering promotions, demotions, terminations, layoffs and other workforce activities with respect to employees that have engaged in activity that could trigger the antiretaliation protections to avoid creating evidence that supports a retaliation claim as well as to consistently carefully capturing and retaining documentation and other evidence that can be used to demonstrate legally defensible reasons for job decisions impacting these employees that might be needed to defend against retaliation, interference or other discrimination charges under these and other laws.
Employers also may wish to discuss with legal counsel the advisability and strategies for proactively reviewing job performance, promotion, termination, discipline and other job actions involving employees whose prior involvement in protected activity arguably might provide a basis for asserting protection against retaliation or interference under any of these laws.
If you would like more information about employer strategies for managing compliance and risks arising from the administration of workforce related COVID-19 or other practices, The author of this update, employment lawyer Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Ms. Stamer recently discussed COVID-specific retaliation risks and other employer concerns arising from federal COVID-19 vaccination and other workforce requirements as a panelist on the “COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates & Incentives” virtual seminar the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits hosted on November 12, 2021 and has assisted employers to manage and defend exposures under EEOC, occupational health and safety and other federal and state laws for more than 30 years. To purchase a recording of the program, see here. For information about obtaining Ms. Stamer’s slides, email here.
Solutions Law Press, Inc. also invites you to receive future updates by registering here and participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. LinkedIn SLP Health Care Risk Management & Operations Group, HR & Benefits Update Compliance Group, and/or Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating your profile here. For specific information about the these or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
About the Author
For help developing, administering or defending your organization’s COVID-19 Mandatory Vaccine Policy or other workforce, employee benefits, compensation or compliance practices, contact the author. Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years working as an on demand, special project, consulting, general counsel or other basis with domestic and international business, charitable, community and government organizations of all types, sizes and industries and their leaders on labor and employment and other workforce compliance, performance management, internal controls and governance, compensation and benefits, regulatory compliance, investigations and audits, change management and restructuring, disaster preparedness and response and other operational, risk management and tactical concerns.
For more information about these concerns or Ms. Stamer’s work, experience, involvements, other publications, or programs, see www.cynthiastamer.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn or Twitter or e-mail here.
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