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Philly workers fired after raising COVID-19 concerns are suing their former employer

It's one of the first lawsuits that cites the Philadelphia COVID-19 anti-retaliation law, which went into effect last summer.

Workers at the Old Pine Community Center allege that they were fired for raising COVID-19 workplace safety concerns.
Workers at the Old Pine Community Center allege that they were fired for raising COVID-19 workplace safety concerns.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Five people who were fired after raising concerns about their employer’s handling of COVID-19 have filed a lawsuit against the Society Hill community center where they used to work.

The workers allege that they were fired in retaliation for speaking up about COVID-19 safety — an apparent violation of the Philadelphia whistle-blower protection law that went into effect over the summer.

The lawsuit against Old Pine Community Center, filed late last month in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, is one of the first cases citing the city’s COVID-19 ordinance. And it’s one of hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of workers during the pandemic: A Philadelphia law firm has filed two wrongful death suits against JBS and Tyson Foods on behalf of Philly-area meatpacking workers who died after contracting COVID-19 on the job. Other workers have filed discrimination suits after, for example, a refusal to grant a work-from-home request for an employee more at risk for COVID-19 complications.

In the Society Hill case, the complaint alleges, a group of Old Pine Community Center workers — youth counselors, program coordinators, maintenance staffers — sent a letter to the board of managers in July laying out concerns about the nonprofit’s reopening plan. The center, which hosts educational programs and food distribution, is affiliated with the nearby Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church, though the center itself is nondenominational.

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Five days before the center was to reopen to the public, workers were told that the center’s then-executive director, April Thomas-Jones, had tested positive for COVID-19 and that they should get tested. In their letter, the workers said they did not feel safe returning to work without a negative test and without quarantining for 14 days, as health professionals at testing sites had told them to do.

“Reopening the center on Monday is not in the best interest of the staff and does not take into account our collective voices,” they wrote in the letter, which also raised workplace issues such as a lack of transparency from management and a fear of retaliation when speaking up.

Ten days later, five of the nine workers who signed the letter were fired.

Old Pine Community Center did not return a request for comment.

The Philadelphia COVID-19 anti-retaliation law — which more than two dozen unions and worker organizations fought for — is designed to protect workers whose employers do not follow public health orders from the city, state, or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For workers who believed that their employers were putting them in danger, there were few avenues for protection: Workplace health and safety experts criticized the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for protecting workers, for failing to be aggressive enough during such a dangerous time for workers. Last year, the agency received more than 9,000 complaints. OSHA issued citations in response to 300 inspections and fined employers a total of $3.8 million.

Worker advocates say the best way to get employers to pay attention to safety concerns is to organize: Get together with coworkers and raise concerns to the boss. Advocates recommended this kind of activity in part because it’s protected by federal labor law. The city’s COVID-19 retaliation law adds another layer of protection for workers who organize for safer conditions. It also gives them a mechanism for taking their employer to court.

» READ MORE: I’m back at work and I don’t feel safe. What can I do?

Workers can file a retaliation complaint with the city and get a “determination of reasonable cause” — a notice that means the city has investigated the situation and thinks there’s a case to be made that an employer violated the law. They can then use that to take their employer to court.

The Old Pine workers filed their complaint at the end of August and got a determination of reasonable cause from the city in January. It was the second COVID-19 retaliation determination issued by the city since the law went into effect, said Candace Chewning, a spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Department of Labor.

The city would not identify the other employer, other than to say it was a home health-care agency.

The city received two dozen retaliation complaints last year and is still investigating two-thirds of them, according to a city report. The remaining complaints have either been found invalid, revoked by the complainant, or resulted in a determination of reasonable cause.