As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the country, many patients infected with COVID-19 will need emergency medical care. Hospitals are seeing not only coronavirus carriers, but other patients seeking treatment for different conditions, ailments, and injuries. Although the federal government may enact temporary measures to fight the pandemic, the law is clear; emergency rooms cannot turn away patients needing emergency care, and they cannot retaliate against whistleblowers working in those hospitals who speak up when that happens.
There is no shortage of heroes in California during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. They put themselves in harm's way every day to help others. Not only do healthcare workers put their own health at risk by doing their jobs, but they also increase the chances that they may expose their families and loved ones to the virus. Given these sacrifices, it isn't unreasonable for such workers to expect the safest possible environment for doing their critical work. In fact, California law demands it.
As the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S., New York and many other states and cities have ordered non-essential businesses to close. However, what constitutes an "essential business" has shifted over the course of the pandemic, as has how the order will be enforced.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act released $2 trillion into the economy in an effort to help stabilize families and businesses. Although it did not include new protections for employees who are retaliated against for reporting corporate wrongdoing, existing laws still protect some kinds of workplace whistleblowing.
When disasters strike - including the current coronavirus outbreak - price gouging, scams, and other fraud unfortunately follow. If the government is the entity being defrauded, however, whistleblowers have the power to expose the wrongdoing and protect the public, but they, too, need protection from unlawful retaliation.
In July 2019, the Taxpayer First Act ("TFA") was signed into law. It is intended to redesign the Internal Revenue Service to promote consistent application of federal tax laws and enhance the public's confidence in the IRS. Modeled after the whistleblower protection provisions of the False Claims Act and Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the TFA extends anti-retaliation protections to insiders who report employers' suspected tax fraud and non-compliance.
In 2011, researchers released the results of a study on nurses who acted as whistleblowers or were bystanders in a whistleblowing incident at work. The alarming reports of depression, distress, panic attacks, anxiety and increased reliance on cigarettes and alcohol, underscores that reporting wrongdoing in the workplace can cause serious emotional distress. Nevertheless, those damages can be difficult to quantify and prove at trial. Two recent cases show that some judges and juries are beginning to understand the toll blowing the whistle can take on employees, but challenges remain.