As Ohio Considers Shielding Business Owners From COVID-Related Lawsuits, Here's Who Workers Should Call If They Have Safety Concerns

click to enlarge As Ohio Considers Shielding Business Owners From COVID-Related Lawsuits, Here's Who Workers Should Call If They Have Safety Concerns

Ohio recently set up a portal on its unemployment page for employers to narc on employees who refused to come back to work during the pandemic for fear of contracting the virus. Not only did the state decid to offer the snitching tool in the midst of stay-at-home orders, it took the added step of widely advertising it in mass emails sent out to Ohio businesses in early May.

This did not sit well with workers, worker advocates and normal human beings who recognize the power imbalance between business owners and low-paid workers who, given the current landscape, would be forced to choose between losing their unemployment benefits or heading back to the workplace in possibly unsafe conditions.

A hacker helpfully built a tool to flood the portal with a bunch of false claims to make it harder for the state to sift the legit complaints from the bunk ones. Shortly after, the state said it was looking to reevaluate the tool and had decided, in the meantime, to put it on hold.

“No benefits are being denied right now as a result of a person’s decision not to return to work while we continue to evaluate the policy," told earlier this week.

That's a positive step, but as the state reopens in stages throughout the month, it's still considering policies that coddle and protect business owners at the expense of workers.

An Ohio Senate Committee heard testimony from business owners and lobbyist groups including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday for SB 308, which would provide immunity to business owners from COVID-19 related lawsuits.

In theory, it would protect business owners from employees contracting the virus and filing a lawsuit even if the owner was operating in full compliance with state and federal guidelines.

"The last thing struggling businesses need is to face a financially crippling lawsuit," the Ohio Chamber of Commerce tweeted of the bill.

Of course, the last thing a struggling worker needs is COVID-19 or expensive medical bills.

And in practice, some argue, the bill would shield business owners who act badly, who fail to provide proper safety measures for employees, and even incentivize lax protocols.

“The message we send to any business by providing them with immunity is, ‘We want you to act safely, but we will not hold you responsible if you don’t,’” Robert Wagoner of the Ohio Association of Justice testified.

So what can you do, as an employee, if you feel like your employer is putting you in danger?

The answer hasn't been obvious nor advertised as thoroughly as the unemployment snitch line, given the string of emails and DMs to Scene in the past two weeks from concerned workers at, just to give a few examples, a local government office, a call center and a local grocery store.

But the answer is your local health department.

If you're in Cuyahoga County but not the city of Cleveland, it's the Cuyahoga County Department of Public Health. If your'e in the city of Cleveland, it's the Cleveland Department of Public Health.

"Anywhere in the county, except the city of Cleveland, call us at 216-201-2000 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.," Cuyahoga County Department of Public Health spokesperson Kevin Brennan told Scene. "We talk with the complainant over the phone and then follow up with the business in question. That may be over the phone or in person depending on the nature of the call. If we go out to a location, we speak with the operator or manager. In nearly all cases, we are able to achieve compliance."

So there you go.

We reached out to the city of Cleveland for a comment on how they address employee concerns, but they, predictably, didn't respond. So good luck on that front.
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