Walz order: Workers may refuse to work if not given COVID-19 protections

A Caribou worker serves coffee at a drive thru in Roseville in April 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order Wednesday that says workers cannot be fired for refusing to work in unsafe conditions, including not having protection against COVID-19. The order also says employers may not retaliate against workers for reporting unsafe or unhealthy workplaces to health officials.

“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety for economic security. As more people head back to work, they must be protected,” Walz wrote in the order.

Lt. Gov.  Peggy Flanagan said in a statement, “Those who return to work can and should raise concerns about the health and safety practices of their workplaces without fear of discrimination or retaliation.”

People working in a range of essential jobs including meatpacking, sanitation, coffee shops, construction and health care have voiced concerns about a lack of protective gear, social distancing and safety protocols to limit the spread of the coronavirus. This has disproportionately affected people of color, who are more likely to work in essential service jobs.

The order cites existing laws in Minnesota that give people the right to refuse to work under unsafe conditions and makes clear those laws extend to COVID-19.

Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order that allows workers to refuse to work under unsafe conditions related to COVID-19.

In order to reopen during the peacetime emergency, businesses must create a COVID-19 preparedness plan that details how they plan to meet state and federal safety guidelines to mitigate the risk of workers and customers being exposed to the coronavirus. That includes plans for social distancing, providing protective gear, disinfecting and training workers.

Under Walz’s order, failing to develop or implement a plan constitutes creating an unsafe work environment.

Workers are entitled to unemployment benefits if they quit because their employers fail to create safe working conditions.

Labor leaders praised the order. In a statement, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy said, “The simple truth is that our economy cannot rebound unless employers are held accountable to implement safety measures to protect both workers and public health. Failing to do so would result in more workers falling sick and even more economic damage.”

What constitutes a “reasonable” and “good faith” fear of an unsafe work environment as set forth in the executive order is up for interpretation and may have to be argued in court and ultimately decided by a judge.

Steve Smith, a Minneapolis-based employment attorney with Nichols Kaster, says people who don’t work in a public-facing job may not have a strong argument for not going to work if they have only a general fear of becoming infected.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

But employees in crowded workplaces like meatpacking plants or grocery stores may have a better case if their employers don’t provide necessary gear or protocols to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

“It depends. It’s a classic lawyer answer but it really does depend on the workplace,” Smith said.

Smith said the state does have strong anti-retaliation laws and advises workers to talk to their employers if they have concerns. If their employers don’t make reasonable changes, then employees should file a complaint with Minnesota’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Hopefully those conversations can make it work because the statutes are reasonably pro-employee,” Smith said. “And the fear of consequences (for employers), hopefully, will put employees in good shape to have those conversations.”

Workers who feel unsafe at work may contact Minnesota OSHA Compliance at [email protected], 651-284-5050 or 877-470-6742 with questions.