As many employers begin returning people to work, Philadelphia has passed an ordinance protecting employees who share safety concerns related to COVID-19.

The ordinance requires employers to comply with all orders and regulations issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Health or the Philadelphia Department of Health related to COVID-19, specifically the safe workplace and workplace risk mitigation directives.

Employers may not take adverse employment action against employees who make a “protected disclosure,” defined as a good-faith communication (or intent to communicate) that may show a violation of the Commonwealth’s or City’s COVID-19 public health orders, if the violation significantly threatens the health or safety of employees or the public. Employee disclosures are protected when they are made for the purpose of remedying the violation at issue.

Similarly, employers may not take adverse employment actions against employees who refuse to work if they reasonably believe the employer is violating the Commonwealth’s or City’s COVID-19 public health orders and have notified the employer of that belief.

However, employees may not refuse to work if the employer provides a reasonable alternative work assignment that does not expose the employee to the suspected unsafe condition. In addition, employees may not refuse to work if an inspection by the Commonwealth’s or City’s Department of Health finds that the employer is complying with the applicable public health rules.

Employees who believe their employers have violated the ordinance may file an administrative complaint with the City’s Department of Labor. If the Labor Department finds reasonable cause, the employees may sue in court for reinstatement, back pay, attorney’s fees and costs, among other remedies. The City can also impose penalties. The ordinance provides that corporate officers and executives of an employer may be individually liable in the event of a violation.

Philadelphia employers who bring employees back to work should plan to incorporate the new ordinance into their compliance programs.