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Lawmakers unveil bill to extend whistleblower protections beyond declared public health emergencies

colorado state capitol
Posted at 6:52 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 20:56:15-05

DENVER — Colorado lawmakers have unveiled a bill that would extend whistleblower protections for employees who raise health and safety concerns at their workplaces.

The bill is a continuation of a 2020 law that added additional protections to workers in all industries.

HB20-1415 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who choose to wear protective equipment, like masks and face guards, or who speak up with concerns about the employer’s health and safety practices. Additionally, the 2020 law set up a process for employees to take those complaints directly to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment before the courts, which advocates say has resulted in quicker responses.

However, the law is relatively narrow in scope. The whistleblower protections and report process only apply to declared public health emergencies.

“Without whistleblower protections, workers could be subjected to bad faith employers responding to their concerns by demoting them, firing them, cutting their hours or otherwise retaliating against them,” said Nina DiSalvo, a policy director with the nonprofit Toward Justice.

Since the Public Health Emergency Whistleblower Act was put into place, data from CDLE, which was released by Rep. Leslie Herod during a press conference Wednesday, shows 126 complaints have been filed with the state. Of those, CDLE is actively investigating eight of the complaints, with another 30 under review.

Seven of the 126 complaints resulted in settlements, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid out. Another 33 complaints were issued a notice of right to sue, four complaints were withdrawn and the rest were dismissed.

Former Amazon employee Linda Rodriguez was one of the people who filed a complaint under the 2020 whistleblower law.

“She had several concerns about COVID-19-related safety precautions at the Amazon warehouse,” said her attorney, Brianne Power.

Power says some of her client’s concerns were about contact tracing, while others were about Amazon’s failure to provide COVID-19 safety instructions in Spanish.

“She was bringing these concerns to Amazon and was eventually fired, and the complaint alleges that she was fired in retaliation for speaking out in order to squelch her voice,” Power said.

They are now in the process of bringing a lawsuit against Amazon to court.

Denver Health employees had also  filed a complaint in 2020 alleging they were retaliated against for raising COVID-19 concerns.

The new bill would extend the protections offered under the PHEW Act indefinitely, no longer requiring a declared public health emergency to apply.

“The power imbalances in most workplaces throughout Colorado are extraordinary. Workers are scared to come forward with all sorts of concerns. People depend on their paycheck to feed their families to provide for their children,” DiSalvo said. “We still want workers to have these protections because we still want workplace health and safety and the health and safety of all of Colorado's residents to be foremost in our minds.”

Becky Sassaman is a registered nurse who has worked through the worst parts of the pandemic. She says she has heard the horror stories from fellow nurses who tried to raise concerns.

“I did hear from nurses at a lot of different hospitals that they were actually told they couldn't bring up concerns or they would be asked to not work there,” Sassaman said. “I have had to speak up a lot on behalf of other people, and partly that's because people don't feel like they can speak up a lot for themselves.”

She says it’s a struggle for nurses who want to do their ethical responsibility and speak up but who don’t want to lose their jobs.

“So, the emotional toll of dealing with patients and being overwhelmed, and then taking care of our own families, and then being told to not speak the truth as we know it. It's, they're really hard, and a lot of people I know have left the profession,” Sassaman said.

The nurse hopes the bill will pass for the sake of safety, both for patients and employees.

For now though, it’s up to Colorado lawmakers to debate the merits of the bill and determine whether these types of protections should be permanent.