The impact of COVID-19 on Whistleblower Lawsuits

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted various aspects of our day-to-day lives, not to mention every facet of US law. There has been a multitude of ways workers have been affected by the coronavirus. As a result, there’s been an increase in regulatory violations throughout the country, and employees are blowing the whistle on untoward actions and corporate fraud.

Unfortunately, existing laws in the US do not provide sufficient protection for employee whistleblowers during a pandemic. Below are several examples of situations illustrating the need for COVID-19-related protection for whistleblowers: 

  • Corporations preventing their workers from disclosing information regarding coronavirus outbreaks in the workplace.
  • Employees are getting fired for requesting their employers to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • Employees dealing with unsafe working conditions.
  • Employees unionizing and protesting against unfair treatment shown by their employers during the pandemic. 

On this page, we’ll shed some light on the COVID-19 Whistleblower Act and its importance for workers throughout the country. 

The COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act at a Glance

The COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act was introduced by several congressional representatives on June 15, 2020. The legislation aims to establish whistleblower protections for government contractors and private-sector workers complaining against misuse, fraud, and other types of misconduct related to funds used for the pandemic.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of the main sources of COVID-19-related funds, was established as part of the CARES Act to provide support to businesses affected by the pandemic. The legislation aims to keep employees on their company’s payroll, even if the company incurred losses due to quarantine regulations and social distancing requirements.

According to a report from the US Small Business Administration (SBA), more than $521 billion worth of PPP loans were disbursed to businesses across the US. Unfortunately, there are some businesses that did not make use of those funds lawfully. Within the last seven months following the establishment of the program, there were at least 65 borrowers charged with fraud

Why is it important?

Although the US government has a vested interest in uncovering misconduct and fraud related to COVID-19 funds, exposing all instances of fraudulent activity will require help from outside resources. This is precisely why whistleblowers play a key role, and why having whistleblower protection laws is extremely important. 

Should the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act pass, any employee reporting cases of fraud or misconduct will be protected from retaliation for providing assistance to the government. Thus, employers will be prohibited from firing, demoting, or discriminating against workers who disclose instances of wrongdoing to proper government authorities. 

Disadvantages of Existing Whistleblower Protections

Although whistleblower protection laws have been established even before the pandemic, many of its weaknesses and disadvantages were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In particular, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was highly criticized for its inactivity and failure to provide proper guidance. During the first months of the pandemic when there was a shortage of PPEs for healthcare workers, numerous employees expressed concerns regarding their health and safety. Under OSHA’s Whistleblower Investigations Manual, protection will be provided to any employees “communicating with the media about an unsafe or unhealthful workplace condition.” However, the organization did not lift a finger as healthcare workers experienced retaliation for such actions, even though it was supposedly considered protected activity.

OSHA’s failure to provide sufficient guidance on retaliation during the pandemic caused a lot of issues, as workers only have a limited 30-day window to file claims against retaliation under the OSH Act of 1970. Because many of them were unaware that their employer’s actions are in fact unlawful, they did not file claims that could otherwise stop the retaliation immediately.

What to Do in Case You Suspect COVID-19-Related Fraud or Misconduct

If you suspect misuse of PPP funds by your employer, report the activity by contacting the SBA. If you are experiencing unsafe conditions in your workplace, get in touch with your local OSHA office to file a complaint. If your employer retaliates against you or your coworkers, it’s important to make others aware of the situation you’re currently facing. 

Whistleblower protection laws can be confusing for most people, and there are specific rules which do not apply to all government agencies. If you suspect unlawful activity from your employer, get in touch with an employment law attorney in San Diego.

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