As the coronavirus pandemic hit, workers around the country flooded the office of a federal watchdog with reports that they’d been punished for speaking out about unsafe workplace conditions. But that office had just slashed its staff and has been unable to handle the huge influx of complaints.
That was the key finding of a report released on Tuesday by the inspector general for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency tasked with protecting and promoting workplace safety. The IG’s office found a massive spike in whistleblower complaints submitted to the agency since the coronavirus outbreak began, many alleging employer retaliation against workers who reported unsafe working conditions.
But OSHA’s whistleblower office was significantly understaffed, the IG found, and months-long delays in processing those complaints have only grown longer since the pandemic hit the U.S.
“The pandemic has raised concerns regarding the safety and health of the workforce, and the protections afforded to those who report potential workplace safety violations,” the IG wrote in its report. “As COVID-19 illnesses and deaths continue to rise, OSHA needs to act quickly to investigate whistleblower complaints so employees feel protected when reporting unsafe working conditions.”
“When OSHA fails to respond in a timely manner, it could leave workers to suffer emotionally and financially,” the IG added.
The OHSA whistleblower process is available to workers who feel their employers have improperly retaliated against them for reporting potential workplace safety and health violations. In the context of the pandemic, that means potential violations of rules on social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment in the workplace.
According to the IG’s office, OSHA has not been able to handle such complaints in a timely manner due to the simultaneous reduction in staff available to process them, and the sudden spike in complaints submitted to OSHA offices around the country. According to the report, those offices received 30 percent more whistleblower complaints during the first four months of the pandemic, February through May, than it did during the equivalent period last year.
The average number of days required to close an OSHA whistleblower investigation has nearly doubled over the past decade, from 150 days in the first quarter of 2010 to 279 days in the same period this year. When OSHA held a stakeholder meeting to get public input on the whistleblower process in May, people who’d attempted to report workplace retaliation described waiting as long as two and a half years for the agency to complete their investigations
The agency nonetheless reduced its whistleblower office staff levels from last year. Those offices’ full-time equivalent employees, the metric used to measure staff levels, decreased from 126 in 2019 to 120 this year—just as the pandemic hit. While the report doesn’t say precisely why the staffing levels have been reduced, comments from OSHA included in the report indicate that hiring has been hamstrung, in part, by red tape in the federal hiring process. The agency is “working to fill these positions quickly while still following all federal hiring procedures,” OSHA said.
The existing staffing shortfall has nonetheless meant a massive caseload dropped in the laps of fewer agency staffers. OSHA’s office in Seattle, the first major U.S. city hit by the pandemic, has just three investigators handling whistleblower complaints, according to the IG report. The number of complaints submitted to that office increased from 131 from February to May 2019 to 165 during the equivalent period this year. In New York, the city hardest hit by the virus, nine OSHA investigators had to take on a caseload of 350 whistleblower complaints during the same period this year, up from 244 in 2019.
In its written response to the IG report, OSHA leadership agreed with the IG’s recommendations for addressing the issue, including filling five vacancies in the offices that handle whistleblower complaints and developing a more detailed caseload management plan.
“OSHA continues to implement proven strategies to improve its efficiency and effectiveness, despite the added workload created by the pandemic,” wrote Loren Sweatt, the senior Labor Department official who oversees OSHA.
OSHA also noted that it has already “processed” more than half of the COVID-related complaints it’s received. But according to the IG report, that processing itself has sucked resources away from the work of actually investigating and addressing the whistleblower complaints. Investigators told the IG that they have been forced to stop working on open cases in order to process all the complaints flooding their offices. The result was further delays in actually addressing the complaints.
OSHA pledged to take steps to reduce the backlog and improve its response to the sudden influx of whistleblower complaints. But the IG report identifies some basic steps to do so that have been oddly overlooked. In previous efforts to address backlogs, OSHA officials have reassigned whistleblower complaints to offices with lighter workloads in an effort to ease the burden on more active offices. But the agency did not employ that tactic amid the pandemic-era spike in complaints, the IG found.
On July 20, as the U.S. hit yet another record in COVID diagnoses, OSHA finally issued a directive establishing procedures for developing pilot programs that would redistribute some of that caseload.