Wisconsin Prohibits Retaliation for Reporting COVID-19 Ethical and Legal Violations

Amidst the worldwide coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, health care professionals are speaking out about their employers’ legal and ethical violations. In some cases, doctors have been fired for publicly disagreeing with their employers policies.

Examples of Retaliation Against Whistleblowing Doctors

A Washington State physician was recently terminated after he spoke out on social media regarding his hospital-employer’s alleged failures to sufficiently segregate potentially COVID-19 patients at the hospital and the lack of protective measures, such as regular temperature checks, to screen hospital staffers for the virus.

A Texas doctor was suspended without pay for wearing a mask in the hallway, a practice prohibited by the hospital where he works.

Increasingly, doctors are experiencing the inability to exercise their own medically-informed judgement when hospitals decide “what is best” and threaten, explicitly and implicitly, that insubordination could result in termination. As the pandemic continues, Wisconsin healthcare workers will undoubtedly experience similar retaliation responses from their employers.

WI Healthcare Worker Protection Act Forbids Retaliation

Wisconsin’s Healthcare Worker Protection Act, explained by Barbara Zack Quindel in another post, prohibits healthcare providers from retaliating against employees who report:

• a violation of state or federal laws, rules or regulations, or
• “any situation in which the quality of any health care service provided by the health care facility or health care provider or by an employee” of same “violates any standard” established by state or federal laws, rules, or regulations.

The law also prohibits healthcare employers from retaliating against employees who report any situation violating a “clinical or ethical standard established by a professionally recognized accrediting or standard-setting body and poses a potential risk to public health or safety.”

Victims of Employer Retaliation Much Report Violations to Gain Protection

To exercise these retaliation protections, employees must report violations to:
• any Wisconsin agency,
• a professionally recognized or standard-setting body that has accredited, certified or approved the facility or provider,
• any officer or director of the facility or provider, or
• to any employee of the facility or provider who is in a supervisory capacity or in a position to take corrective action.

COVID-19 Pandemic Pushing Status Quo Regulations to Evolve

State and federal laws, rules and regulations are evolving as the country makes its way through the COVID-19 pandemic. Accrediting bodies are similarly working to establish and communicate appropriate standards to meet the demands and challenges presenting by the disease and its rapid spread worldwide. As lawmakers, agencies, and accrediting bodies act to address the pandemic, healthcare workers should be permitted to freely speak out against violations of law and ethics without fear of disciplinary action. Indeed, workers speaking out have often proved instrumental in the revelation and resolution of critical safety problems in healthcare and other industries. Employers who whistleblowers must be held accountable for illegal retaliation.

Summary

The attorneys at Hawks Quindel can counsel health care workers who have witnessed COVID-19 related violations of state or federal law but have not yet reported the violations to the appropriate agency or their employer. Healthcare workers who have been disciplined for reporting such violations can contact us at our Milwaukee office (414-271-8650) or our Madison office (608) 257-0040 to speak with an attorney, or email us via our contact form.

Nicholas Fairweather
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